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The State of the Union: What to Watch For

Posted Jan. 25, 2011 / Posted by: Becca Connors

President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, January 25. The speech will provide important indications about the President’s priorities for the next year, and should signal to environmentalists the extent to which he plans to stand up to corporate polluter lobbyists and support a pro-environment agenda.

Here’s Friends of the Earth’s view of what the President should say about energy and the environment, and what he shouldn’t say.

What President Obama SHOULD 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. President Obama should make it clear he will use all of the tools at his disposal to stop them.

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. 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 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 should pledge to spend political capital to eliminate these subsidies.

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. President Obama should use the bully pulpit of the presidency to call Americans’ attention to this challenge and the fact that while time is running out, solutions are still attainable.

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. President Obama should make this point.

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 should urge Congress to promote healthier bodies, healthier pocketbooks, and a healthier planet by reducing vehicle miles travelled. He should call for investments in rail, public transit, walkable and bikeable communities and other smart transportation options.

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.

What President Obama SHOULD 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. We want President Obama to talk about clean energy, but only if he uses the term accurately.

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.

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.

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 make 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.

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