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Assessing the 2011 State of the Union Address

Posted Jan. 26, 2011 / Posted by: Erich Pica

President Obama delivered the State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, January 25. The speech provided important indications about the President’s priorities for the next year, and signaled to environmentalists the extent to which he plans to stand up to corporate polluter lobbyists and support a pro-environment agenda. The President announced some promising new initiatives, but overall, the speech disappointed.

Here’s what Friends of the Earth was looking for the President to say about energy and the environment, what he should have avoided, and how the speech he delivered stacked up.

What we called on President Obama to do in his speech:

1)        Commit to protecting the Clean Air Act and vetoing any rollbacks

The Clean Air Act is a landmark law that has cut air pollution, reduced asthma and lung disease, and saved lives. In 2007, the Supreme Court confirmed that the Clean Air Act’s protections apply to the pollution that is causing climate change, and as a result the Environmental Protection Agency has begun implementing the Clean Air Act with modest measures to reduce climate pollution. Unfortunately, corporate special interests that would rather be able to pollute freely, with no constraints, are now backing legislative attempts to roll back the Clean Air Act’s protections. Such rollbacks would be disastrous.

Although the President did not specifically mention the Clean Air Act, he did explain that laws and regulations have kept air and water safe over the last century. He should use the next possible opportunity to be more specific about his commitment to the Clean Air Act and to its life-saving regulations – and he must be clear that he fully supports the Act and will veto any effort to limit or roll back this landmark legislation.

2)        Rededicate himself to cutting fossil fuel subsidies

Fossil fuels are inherently dirty, but unfortunately, while fossil fuel industries like Big Oil and King Coal have multibillion dollar profits, Congress continues to award them massive subsidies (of course, the fossil fuel lobby pumps millions into political campaigns in turn). President Obama has pledged to end fossil fuel subsidies, but so far, Congress has been unwilling to make necessary cuts. Given that many of the newly elected members of Congress promised during their campaigns to cut deficit spending, they should be amenable to eliminating these subsidies, as doing so would reduce the deficit. Friends of the Earth and its allies have identified $200 billion in environmentally harmful spending that can be cut from the budget in our Green Scissors report (http://www.greenscissors.com/).

President Obama showed leadership in his speech when he said, “Instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.” We strongly support the President’s call for ending subsidies to oil companies, and we will do all we can to achieve legislation from Congress that fulfills it. However, the President could have called for and should now promote an end to all fossil fuel subsidies, including taxpayer money that goes to the coal and natural gas industries.

3)        Speak out about the serious threats posed by climate change -- and real solutions

Last year was the hottest year ever recorded, and climate-related extreme weather events harmed people around the world. Scientists agree that the impacts of climate change will become much more severe if we do not rapidly reduce pollution. Unfortunately, right-wing, polluter-backed misinformation campaigns have confused much of the public about the state of the science.

In possibly the biggest disappointment of the night, President Obama did not even mention “climate change” or “global warming” – perhaps the greatest threat and challenge of our time. We disagree with those who believe that this problem can be solved even if it is not named. And we believe that the President, in failing to use his bully pulpit and talk openly about climate change, must share part of the blame for public misunderstanding of  the science.

4)        Explain that government regulation is often a good thing

Effective regulations are essential to the strength of our economy and the well being of the public. However, corporate special interests seeking to enrich themselves have tried to make “regulation” a dirty word. This isn’t an abstract debate. We’ve seen in the past what happens without sufficient regulation: kids die when they eat contaminated food, rivers catch on fire, giant oil spills take human life and destroy ecosystems, corporations discriminate against and mistreat their employees, and financial institutions engage in behavior so risky that it crashes the economy. The truth is that in order for markets and society to function, we need regulations.

Expanding on his plan to modernize government regulations, President Obama argued that regulations have helped Americans over the last century. From speed limits and food safety laws to financial and environmental regulations (which the President specifically mentioned), many federal rules have prevented the worst corporate abuses, and will continue to do so in the future. We were pleased that the President defended reasonable regulation and the government’s crucial role in protecting the public from corporate excess.

5)        Call for a transportation bill that reduces vehicle miles travelled

Americans are boxed in by a built environment that requires cars for all manner of trips, resulting in worsening health, lost productivity and leisure time, and unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.  Our outdated federal transportation policy has resulted in yearly increases in what the Center for Clean Air Policy has dubbed “empty miles,” miles driven by cars that serve as a drag on household budgets and the wider American economy. The upcoming debate about the federal surface transportation bill is the perfect opportunity to reduce miles traveled by personal vehicles and to reconfigure the built environment by bringing origins and destinations closer together.  President Obama and Congress could promote healthier bodies, healthier pocketbooks, and a healthier planet by passing legislation to reduce vehicle miles travelled.

Laudably, the President featured high-speed rail in the speech, calling for increased investments to make high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans within a quarter century. This would be a good start, and President Obama should instruct his administration to push for investments in other smart alternatives to automobile transportation, including walkable and bikeable communities and local public transportation.

6)        Defend federal agencies from congressional assault

Members of the 112th Congress have threatened to drive federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to a grinding halt with weekly or even daily hearings questioning their authority to regulate everything from greenhouse gases to oil spills to genetically engineered fish.  President Obama should strongly defend these agencies, and their policies and regulations -- both existing and proposed, from any attack on their authority and ability to protect our environment and public health from harm.

President Obama failed to call out congressional rabble-rousers who have vowed – regardless of Supreme Court rulings and legal precedent – to prohibit independent agencies from doing the jobs they were created to do. The President did speak out for “safeguards to protect the American people,” but he missed an opportunity to clearly declare that he will fight back against congressional attempts to impede federal agencies’ work to protect people and our environment.

What we asked President Obama to avoid:

1)        Calling dirty things clean -- like the so-called ‘Clean Electricity Standard’

In last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama shocked environmentalists by calling dirty energy sources such as offshore drilling, nuclear reactors, biofuels and coal “clean.” This year, there is a danger that he will endorse what is misleadingly called a “Clean Electricity Standard” -- an energy production mandate that would include many or all of these dirty energy sources. (See the letter Friends of the Earth and allies sent to Obama urging him to avoid endorsing a dirty Clean Electricity Standard.[pdf]) A far better approach would be to call for a “Renewable Electricity Standard” that requires the U.S. to ramp up energy use from truly clean sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal.

It was highly disappointing to hear the President misleadingly call nuclear, coal and natural gas “clean energy.” Mining companies are blowing mountaintops to bits and poisoning rivers in Appalachia, natural gas companies are polluting drinking water, and nuclear reactors produce dangerous radioactive waste. These energy sources are inherently dirty.

2)        Pretending half measures are real solutions to climate change

The enormity of the climate crisis requires radical changes to the ways we produce and consume energy. We can make these changes while making our society more livable and prosperous, but we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that small changes at the margins will be adequate to solve the problem. We welcome any steps that President Obama takes to reduce emissions, but he should frame limited emissions reductions as first steps in the right direction, rather than actions that will accomplish all that is needed.

Given the lack of attention President Obama paid to climate change in his speech, commitment to even a half measure would have at least set us in the right direction.

3)        Promoting new free trade agreements that will harm workers and the environment

President Obama promised during his campaign to step back from his predecessors’ policy of promoting trade agreements that were great for wealthy multinational corporations but that harmed workers and the environment. Unfortunately, the Obama administration recently announced it supports a NAFTA-style trade agreement with South Korea. President Obama should adhere to his campaign pledge and stop promoting bad trade deals. He should not push for the passage of any bad trade agreements in his speech.

In his speech, President Obama called for the ratification of a free trade pact with South Korea and for progress toward finalizing agreements with Panama, Columbia and other developing countries. Based on the deeply flawed NAFTA model, these agreements would empower multinational corporations at the expense of workers and the environment in all countries involved.

4)        Offering to turn the White House over to corporate lobbyists

President Obama won office thanks in large part to his message of change, particularly his pledge that he would change the way Washington works and limit the influence of corporate lobbyists. But his recent selections of William Daley (seen as a close friend of business interests) as his new chief of staff and GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt as the head of his council on jobs and economic competitiveness may indicate that the President is backing away from his commitment to stand up to corporate special interests. President Obama should have made clear in his speech that he will use the presidency to fight for policies that are in the public interest -- to stand up for the common good -- and that he will not give special access to or begin caving more to the demands of corporate special interests. The government is already far too subservient to giant corporations; the President must not announce that he plans to grant them even more influence.

The President implored Congress to simplify the corporate tax code to make regulations fair for all businesses, not just the connected few, and he spoke to a limited extent about the need to limit lobbyist influence and ensure transparency in congressional dealings with lobbyists. It is important that he continue to acknowledge and work to limit undue corporate influence over our government.

For more information, contact Kelly Trout at 202-222-0722 or ktrout@foe.org, or Nick Berning at 202-222-0748 or nberning@foe.org.

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