President Obama used his last State of the Union address to make an economic case for action against climate change and call for accelerating the nation away from "dirty energy" like coal.
In last night’s speech, the president broadly touted job growth in renewable energy industries and said making "technology work for us" to solve urgent issues like climate change is among the top four questions facing the country.
Obama asked, to some applause in the House chamber: "Why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?"
Keeping fossil fuels in the ground has become a key priority for mainstream environmental groups, and activists immediately jumped on the president’s words as a signal that the administration will use its final year promoting policies to account for the climate change impacts of fossil fuel production.
Not surprisingly, the president’s remarks spawned criticism from lawmakers in fossil fuel-heavy states who say President Obama has long waged a war against mining and drilling.
"Why wouldn’t we want to sell the energy of today? There is a major disconnect there," said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a prominent lawmaker on energy issues. "The president has a war on coal. Coal miners are losing their jobs."
The speech represents the president’s strongest words on climate during a State of the Union address and comes exactly one month after more than 190 nations agreed in Paris to a historic deal for limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and to "pursue efforts" to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
The Obama administration played a key role by brokering an agreement with China ahead of the talks and taking domestic action to limit carbon emissions from power plants, even as Republicans used every legislative means to thwart the president’s agenda.
Obama gave a brief shoutout to U.S. negotiators for helping to secure the Paris climate deal, characterizing the agreement as a national security issue.
"When we lead nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change — that helps vulnerable countries, but it also protects our children," the president said.
Obama characterized climate change as an economic issue, as environmentalists wanted, touting the fruits of the administration’s investment in renewable energy and giving himself credit for increases in wind power in Iowa and Texas and in rooftop solar power.
Mark Davis, founder of WDC Solar Inc., a company that trains low-income people for solar industry jobs, sat among the special guests invited to the speech by first lady Michelle Obama.
"Solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills and employs more Americans than coal — in jobs that pay better than average," Obama said.
The president also gave himself a pat on the back for helping cut oil imports and reducing the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. According to a recent report by the Sierra Club, carbon emissions from the electricity sector are at their lowest point in 20 years.
"Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either," Obama said.
Oil and gas industry advocates, on the other hand, said Obama deserves no credit for the boom in domestic production and that natural gas is responsible for the decrease in carbon emissions over the past decades.
"When it comes to the energy side and energy commerce, he didn’t talk about how we got where we are today. Lower gas prices are not because of what’s happening here in Washington, but what’s happening with hydraulic fracturing," said Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio). "The U.S. isn’t importing as much oil because the private industry has done a good job drilling."
Obama also took a jab at critics who question the science of climate change, a group that includes front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination.
"When Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science or shrink our research and development budget," Obama said, later adding, "Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely."
Greens, Dems thrilled
But it was his remarks against the fossil fuel industry that are likely to draw the most debate in the coming days. They come as the Department of the Interior is considering changes to coal, oil and gas lease rules.
While not mentioning leasing specifically, Obama channeled messaging used by environmentalists who argue that oil, coal and gas companies should have to account for the full range of climate change impacts of extracting and using fossil fuels.
"I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources," the president said, "so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet."
After Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, environmentalists have elevated their focus on halting all fossil fuel extraction from federally owned lands through the "Keep It in the Ground" movement.
Environmental groups that are part of the movement immediately latched onto the president’s comments as a signal that the administration was paying attention.
"We welcome President Obama’s full-throated endorsement of clean energy and his pledge to take a close look at how we can get off fossil fuels," said May Boeve, executive director of the group 350.org. "The president’s top priority during his last year in office needs to be keeping that coal, oil and gas in the ground."
The president’s statement also appeared to give a nod to proposals from the administration to help out workers hurt by the downturn in the coal industry.
"Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future — especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels," Obama said, adding that politicians didn’t help American workers by not recognizing energy industry trends.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said, "My hope is this means that we’ll be able to somehow take revenues from fossil fuel production and plow them back into retraining and job shifting in places where we need to grow additional renewable and clean energy jobs, as well."
Heinrich said, "I think a lot of people would support looking at those communities that historically have served this nation with producing traditional energy sources and making sure they have a leg up for the jobs of the future."
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was critical of the speech, saying he hasn’t seen anything yet from the administration that would help displaced coal workers. Instead, Manchin said, Obama has "destroyed us."
"The energy he’s talked about made us the greatest nation on Earth," Manchin said. "That being said, we’re willing to change, we’re willing to transition, we want to find the new technology. We’d like to help the government help us develop it. So let’s see what he has in store."
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she was pleased with Obama’s remarks. Cantwell was among Democratic senators who urged the Department of the Interior last year to charge mining companies for the climate impacts of extracting and burning coal from federal lands.
"We had sent a letter to the secretary previously saying she should recalculate that. Apparently, he’s supporting that effort and directing his administration to do so," Cantwell said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of the Senate’s biggest supporters of action to address climate change, also applauded the president’s statement.
"It sounded a lot to me like in order to support the transition that’s happening in the coal and oil sector and to move them in new directions, there needed to be a price on carbon," Whitehouse said. "He didn’t use the word ‘carbon fee,’ he didn’t use the word ‘carbon tax’ … but it sounded an awful lot like he was calling for just what we want."
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who said there were no real surprises for him in the speech, said Obama has not done enough to foster innovation in new technologies and that regulations have stymied companies from creating technologies at home.
"The way that we’re going to get better environmental stewardship is we deploy those technologies here by empowering that investment rather than preventing it with regulatory burden," Hoeven said.
In fact, Obama received heavy applause during the speech when he said he knew that there were "outdated regulations" that need to be changed and "red tape" that needs to be cut in order for the country to have a thriving private sector.
Reporters Geof Koss and Abby Kessler contributed.