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How Did a Clean Economic Future Fare in SOTU?

J. Mijin Cha

America’s energy independence and the promise of a clean economic future were main themes in last night’s State of the Union address. Parts of the address were very promising and if followed through, would really bring us a thriving clean economy that creates jobs and weans us off foreign oil. The other parts that were bad, however, were very bad.

Let’s start with the good. In his speech, the President emphasized three very important points: 1) Government supported research helps advance technology and innovation, 2) it’s time to stop subsidizing the highly profitable oil industry and double down on clean energy, and 3) energy efficiency is the easiest way to cut back on our energy use. The President also called on Congress to set a clean energy standard to create a market for innovation. As we’ve highlighted before, mandates help provide the market stability necessary to incentivize private investment.

In the absence of Congressional action, the President announced the development of enough clean energy on public land to power three million homes and the Navy’s commitment to purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of million homes per year. The President’s energy efficiency proposal looked to help manufactuers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give incentives to businesses to upgrade their buildings. Retrofitting buildings is the most cost-effective way to fight climate change and decrease energy costs. The President rightly pointed out that retrofitting buildings will save over $100 billion in energy costs over the last decade and create jobs. The President also called for improving infrastructure and upgrading the power grid, both of which would make our economy more efficient and reduce energy waste.

If that was the extent of the President’s speech, we would have a strong blueprint that would make us not only a leader in clean energy development and production, but eventually a net energy exporter. Unfortunately, the first part of the President’s remarks on energy sounded like a deep commitment to expanding natural gas mining through hydro-fracking. The President began by touting the Administration’s policy of expanding offshore oil and gas drilling despite the widespread environmental and economic damage caused by the Deep Horizon offshore drilling accident that is expected to persist for decades.

He then moved into stating that the Administration would take every possible action to safely develop the natural gas supply from shale rock, i.e. fracking, and require companies drilling for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. The problem is that it is not clear that fracking can ever be safe.

Fracking is a very water intensive process that used up to 140 billion gallons of water in 2010 to fracture 35,000 wells. It also uses a mix of chemicals that include ones proven to be toxic to animals and humans. Just last year, the EPA found that fracking had contaminated groundwater supplies in Pennslyvania and Wyoming. Fracking has been linked to recent earthquakes in Ohio and Oaklahoma. Oh, it also makes tap water flammable.

The President’s embrace of government funded research, ending subsidies to the oil industry, and a large-scale energy efficiency program show promise. His apparent devotion to hydro-fracking, however, could end up doing more damage to the environment and health of communities, the extent of which would offset any positive gains from his other initiatives.