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Is Obama’s Energy Plan Change We Can Believe In?


On August 4th the Barack Obama Presidential campaign released a comprehensive program for reform of the U.S. energy system. In the words of Obama supporter and climate blogger and author Joe Romm, it was "easily the best energy plan ever put forward by a nominee of either party." The critical question, however, is this: is it an energy plan that will actually do the job of giving U.S. leadership to the world in a way which gives us a decent chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change?

There are without question a number of positive aspects to the Obama plan, specifically the call for 1 million plug-in hybrid cars by 2015, his commitment to energy efficiency, investing in an upgrade of the national utility grid, weatherizing one million homes annually, a 100% auction of carbon credits under a cap-and-trade program and a goal of 5 million new green jobs. These seem to me to be the best of his proposals.

But there are a number of disturbing positions taken by Obama in this plan, either because they are wrong positions or because they are very weak.

-Nowhere in this document does Obama identify our fossil fuel addiction as a problem. Even George Bush has talked about that addiction. Instead, Obama frames his energy program as primarily a response to "our dependence on oil," especially oil from "the Middle East and Venezuela." It is disturbing that there is not a single statement about the need to shift from the burning of oil, coal and natural gas to clean energy sources.

-Along these lines, one of the seven sections of Obama’s program, "Promote the Supply of Domestic Energy," advocates active support for drilling for oil and natural gas in the U.S. "on 68 million acres of land, over 40 million offshore, which [oil companies] are not drilling on." He says, "Obama will require oil companies to diligently develop these leases or turn them over so that another company can develop them." He supports going after oil and natural gas in shale in several western and southern states. He supports pumping carbon dioxide into oil wells "to produce more oil from existing fields." How is all of this in any way part of a plan to address global warming and move to a new energy economy?

-Obama says that an increase of fuel economy standards by 4% a year is good. That’s questionable. The energy bill passed by Congress in December last year mandated that cars and light trucks get 35 mpg by 2020, which is just about what 4% a year will get us to. China and Europe are already at or slightly above that figure as of 2008.

-Obama calls for a plan to produce "at least 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2030," as well as building the infrastructure for it. There is widespread concern about the effect of biofuels on food prices, agriculture and the economy, and there are serious questions about the extent of greenhouse gas emissions reductions from many biofuels. If we prioritized a rapid shift of our electricity sources from fossil fuels to renewables, as Al Gore has called for, mass production of electric cars would be an all-around winner, for consumers, the auto industry and its workers, and the environment. A whole-hog commitment to making biofuels a major element of a program to address the climate crisis seems premature, at least.

-He says he will require a 1% a year reduction in the carbon content of fuel. This is certainly not a bad thing but, given the urgency of the crisis, it sure seems to be a case of much too little, much too slow.

-He calls for a 15% reduction of electricity demand from DOE projected levels–not a 15% actual reduction of electricity demand but, instead, 15% less than projected by 2020. This is by no means anywhere close to what is both possible and needed.

-Along the same lines Obama projects getting 10 percent of electricity from renewables by 2012, and 25% by 2025. Yet Al Gore has called for 100% of our electricity to come from renewables by 2018 as a way of really matching the urgency of the crisis with an appropriate response. Gore is on target here, not Obama.

-Obama says that we need to "maximize the speed with which we advance" carbon capture and sequestration technologies so that we can "develop and deploy clean coal technology." He would "instruct DOE to enter into public private partnerships to develop five ‘first-of-a-kind’ commercial scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration." If these plans are enacted, Obama will do more for the coal industry than Bush has done by attempting to speedily advance carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). He projects doing this even though most objective analysts of CCS doubt that it will be commercially viable for at least a decade, not to mention other problems with it. Within a decade we must, absolutely must, be on a very fast track to a renewables-based, energy efficient economy, if not yet at Gore’s goal of 100% electricity from renewables.

-Nowhere in the entire eight-page, single-spaced document does Obama have anything critical to say about coal. This is the case despite calls by Al Gore, James Hansen, Lester Brown, most environmental groups, almost all climate groups, the League of Women Voters and others for a  moratorium on the building of new coal plants. It is of note, however, that in Obama’s climate plan, not this energy plan, he does talk about "including standards that ban new traditional coal facilities" to help "move quickly to commercialize and deploy low carbon coal technology." This is an   indication that he could be persuaded to support a coal moratorium on plants that don’t have CCS capability.

-When it comes to nuclear power, Obama takes essentially a middle-of-the-road position. It could be a positive thing that Obama is not making any specific commitments to the building of a certain  number of nuke plants, as is McCain, and he does raise in the document most of the problems with nukes. It remains to be seen what he will do if elected.

-It is a distinct problem that the only goal for emissions reductions is an 80% by 2050 goal, 42 years from now. There is no 2020 goal anywhere in Obama’s document. [In his climate plan, not this energy plan, there a goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, an extremely weak objective.] It is easy for politicians-or anyone else-to say what they want to see over 40 years down the road. Al Gore was right when, in calling for 100% renewables-based electricity by 2018, he spoke of how a 10-year plan is about the limit of what people, and decision-makers, can practically grab onto. More fundamentally, the key to any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change is what we do in the coming years, not decades. We need a serious push now to jump start a clean energy revolution!

-There is no mention of the Kyoto Protocol, and one has to question why Obama projects a continuation of the Major Economies Meetings-meetings of the top 16 carbon polluting countries in the world. The MEM initiative was set up by the Bush Administration for the explicit purpose of undercutting the negotiations by Kyoto Protocol signers (almost the entire world, except for the U.S.), for a stronger accord post 2012.

Obama supporter Joe Romm, quoted at the beginning of this article, has said about Obama’s plan:  "This is an aggressive, achievable, and most important of all, a necessary energy plan. Kudos to Senator Obama and his energy team. Maybe he is The One."

I align myself with 1Sky, Al Gore, James Hansen, Lester Brown, Ross Gelbspan, Bill McKibben and others when it comes to what I think is necessary if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change, and because of that I don’t agree at all with Romm’s conclusion.

Let me be clear: there is no question that Obama’s energy plan is better than McCain’s and a very big improvement over Bush. But I am convinced by my close reading of his energy plan that it is essential that efforts like the 1Sky campaign need to keep ramping up the pressure for a truly science-based program to deal with the climate crisis. We have an extremely short time-frame in which to do so. Obama (and McCain) needs to be pushed now and pushed if he is elected to revise a number of elements of his program.

And to answer the question in this article’s title, it’s impossible to believe in this particular "change" program in total. When it comes to the revolutionary change in energy policy that we urgently need, it is up to the U.S. citizenry at the grassroots to make it so. We must step forward and be the leaders our threatened ecosystem and all its life forms are waiting for.

Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network/U.S. Climate Emergency Council (www.ccan.org and www.uscec.org). He can be reached at [email protected]. Past Future Hope columns are archived at www.tedglick.com.

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