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Great News: Obama Recommits to Clean Energy; Terrible News: Obama Recommits to Dirty Energy

Robert Pollin

In his State of the Union speech earlier this week, President Obama offered strong support on behalf of major new investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. In doing so, he echoed points he made in his inaugural address last month. This is all excellent news. Obama has of course been very strong on the environment in the past. In particular, the 2009 economic stimulus program—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—included $90 billion in funds for new investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy, a level of support that was orders of magnitude beyond anything that had been done previously in the U.S. Moreover, to a large extent, these investments have produced major gains toward a green economy that we desperately need. (Full disclosure: I worked as a consultant to the Department of Energy on implementing some of this program).

Nevertheless, when the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and throughout the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama turned mute on the question of energy and environmental policy. Republicans kept pounding on the point that committing on the environment would be bad for jobs: that you could invest in green energy, or you could be committed on jobs, but you couldn’t do both. Obama and his advisors apparently had become intimidated by this false claim of a massive jobs-versus-the-environment trade-off. As my co-workers and I have shown many times, including here, investing in the green economy is good for jobs. Here are the facts, which we have developed straight from U.S. government statistical sources. On average, you produce roughly 17 jobs per $1 million in spending on the green economy, but only 5 jobs per $1 million by spending to maintain our existing fossil fuel economy.

It is great that Obama is now recommitting his administration to move us back onto a green economy agenda. The fact is, we really have no choice in pushing very hard to build the green economy now, if we take the mountains of evidence from climate science seriously. More specifically, at the least, by 2030, we need to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. by roughly 40 percent relative to where we are today. This will require a massive effort in both energy efficiency and clean renewable energy investments. But there is a realistic path for getting there, which will also generate millions of good jobs and expand economic opportunities in all areas of the country. (Another full disclosure: My co-workers and I have a book-length study coming out on this very soon, expanding and deepening the material we have produced for the past several years, which is summarized briefly in Back to Full Employment. Stay tuned). If we choose to ignore the facts here, we are simply playing Russian roulette with the environment.

Let’s get serious here: Natural gas is not a clean fuel.

All of which makes it especially dispiriting—or let’s just say totally unacceptable—that Obama also came out strongly in his speech last night in favor of further support for expanding the production and consumption of natural gas and oil. Here is what he said: “The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that. And that’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. That’s got to be part of an all-of-the-above plan.”

Let’s get serious here: Natural gas is not a clean fuel. Yes, emissions are only half as bad as with coal, and it is also modestly cleaner than oil. But that isn’t good enough. If we allow our natural gas production to expand significantly—or even to stay where it is today—there is no way we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by anything close by the 40 percent that is necessary by 2030, and by 80 percent as of 2050. Obama did mention accelerating investments in technologies to burn natural gas with a lot fewer emissions. But these technologies are not close to being workable, and they would require hundreds of billions of dollars to get there, maybe.

On top of this, when Obama is referring to expanding natural gas production, he is talking about fracking—the technology of extracting natural gas from near-surface level deposits of shale rock through hydraulic fracturing. We know that this technology is extremely damaging to the environment, causing serious levels of water contamination. Why, therefore, would we want to expand fracking and burning dirty natural gas? The hard truth is that there is no way that this becomes a path toward ecological sanity.

In fact, investing in energy efficiency and renewables is the only realistic option before us. It is ecologically sound, it is affordable, and it will also be a major engine of job creation into the future. It is time for Obama, and for all policymakers of all stripes, to accept reality: there is just no way to split the difference between clean energy and dirty energy if we care about controlling climate change.

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Robert Pollin

Robert Pollin

Robert Pollin, a professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, is co-author of Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy.

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