Obama on Climate and Energy in the SOTU

By Chris Mooney | January 28, 2010 8:33 am

Here’s the part of last night’s speech that is directed at us nerds:

Next, we need to encourage American innovation. Last year, we made the largest investment in basic research funding in history – an investment that could lead to the world’s cheapest solar cells or treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched. And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. You can see the results of last year’s investments in clean energy — in the North Carolina company that will create 1,200 jobs nationwide helping to make advanced batteries; or in the California business that will put a thousand people to work making solar panels.

The new investments in science were wonderful–but will they be able to continue with the president’s proposed three year “freeze” on spending?

But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.

I know greens are ticked about this part of the speech. The conjunction of nuclear, drilling, and clean coal made them understandably apoplectic. But it seems to me that now that Democrats have lost their supermajority in the Senate, it may be necessary to give some ground on these areas if we want a real energy plan to go through. And it sounds like Obama is willing to do that.

I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. And this year I’m eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate.

I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy. I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here’s the thing – even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future – because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.

Go Greg Craven–Obama made your argument!

I’m glad the president isn’t backing down on the Senate bill. I am not in a position to handicap the votes, but, let’s face it: George W. Bush would have gotten the bill through without a supermajority in the Senate. He did it again and again. If Democrats play tougher, and smarter, they can still put us on a path towards solving the climate problem.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy, Environment, Global Warming

Comments (37)

  1. Chloride

    It’s necessary to “give ground” on nuclear because it’s the best and quickest way to address the fossil fuel and climate change crisis. I would recommend Gweneth Cravens’s “Power to the People: The Truth about Nuclear Energy” which lays out how fears of nuclear are overblown. Also read James Lovelock’s endorsement of it in his latest book.

  2. redlink18

    When I heard it, the last paragraph you quoted especially hit it home for me. Environmentally sound can also mean economically sound. I find it misleading when people juxtapose the two goals as antithetical to one another!

  3. Katharine

    “George W. Bush would have gotten the bill through without a supermajority in the Senate. He did it again and again. If Democrats play tougher, and smarter, they can still put us on a path towards solving the climate problem.”

    Agreed.

    Though his possible killing of the Ares and Constellation program is going to cede far too much ground to other countries in space leadership.

  4. Madrocketscientist

    Though his possible killing of the Ares and Constellation program is going to cede far too much ground to other countries in space leadership.

    The US paved the way, let private industry & other countries step up and share the burden of exploring & exploiting space.

  5. Jon

    Chris, as I said in another thread, there’s a good chance the fight over the energy bill won’t look like the one over the health care bill. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins will want to bring in the “pork” for their state, in the form of offshore wind and tidal hydroelectric projects. On the other hand, Democrats from coal producing states may be on the other side. There’s a lot of regional interests this time, not just partisan ones.

    Also, while Obama *said* clean coal, offshore drilling, nuclear, those could mean a lot of things. He could just mean sequestration technologies–which could be positive, since such a large chunk of our existing energy infrastructure is coal-based, and won’t go away for a number of years. With the offshore drilling, I heard that’s just a drop in the bucket, and won’t be implemented for many years. And with nuclear, I think some limited nuclear projects–to test them out and see how viable they are–are appropriate.

    So anyway, his speech could be a rhetorical feint to the right, with the policies themselves being more sensible than the rhetoric makes them sound.

  6. Jon

    Check out what Barney Frank says to one of his constituents about the energy bill’s prospects, as opposed to health care:

    http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2010/01/reality-based_community.php

    He’s much more optimistic.

  7. bilbo

    Obama and the Democrats are playing a good game so far. They’re pointing out how beneficial green jobs will be when it comes to our economic competitiveness with other countries and creating jobs. I don’t think this is overblowing anything, but it’s also putting always-say-no-and-never-provide-an-altrnative conservatives in a bad spot: either get along with the energy bill and give ground on the anti-environment agenda that has recently become the bedrock of their party, or say no and make it look like their helping drive a stake through the heart of our global economic competitiveness. Not a good place to be if you’re a conservative, and it’s more than just a smart trick this time. It’s reality.

  8. One long held misconception from the advocates of nuclear is that the only dangers come from the electric generation facilities themselves. They are maybe less dangerous to your health than a coal fired plant. Add to that, however, the frequently cited dangers from radioactive waste and the picture is a bit less economically attractive.

    But no one ever talks about the dangers of radioactive contamination that happens as the result of uncontrolled, unregulated processes in the extraction (mining) and transportation of uranium before it ever hits the first processing plant. No one wants to talk about the high incidence of cancer among Navajo women whose source of water are contaminated, whose crops have been grown on contaminated soil. It is a story that even the so called “enviros” have too long ignored but which is very real and still causes the death of very real people long after the mining operations have ceased and the companies responsible have been re-organized out of responsibility.

    Put the full cost of waste material storage into the equation, take away the subsides for nuclear, enforce environmental clean up on the mining industries as part of the cost for delivering their product and then see how “cheap” nuclear really is. Without subsidies, no new nuclear plant would be built.

  9. moptop

    “But no one ever talks about the dangers of radioactive contamination that happens as the result of uncontrolled, unregulated processes in the extraction (mining) and transportation of uranium before it ever hits the first processing plant. No one wants to talk about the high incidence of cancer among Navajo women whose source of water are contaminated, whose crops have been grown on contaminated soil. ”

    So, you have a choice, the whole planet, or a small part of it. Will Global Warming be worse than Chernobyl? Than three Chernobyls? If so, then maybe we need to consider the lesser evil and address the extraction problems.

  10. Jon

    Or moptop, you could place your bets on solar thermal and wind, and not so much for nuclear. Nuclear is so expensive that you need big government to fund it (the way they do in “socialist” France). Why anti-big government conservatives love nuclear is beyond me.

  11. But it seems to me that now that Democrats have lost their supermajority in the Senate, it may be necessary to give some ground

    This has nothing to do with the Democratic supermajority and it isn’t even a change in Obama’s energy goals. We’ve known for months that Democrats from oil, coal and gas rich states would oppose legislation unless it included perks like funding for “clean coal”. Likewise, there are Republicans who have been working to get us off our fossil fuel addiction.

    This was from Obama’s address last year, back when the Democrats felt invincible:

    But to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.

  12. GM

    It’s necessary to “give ground” on nuclear because it’s the best and quickest way to address the fossil fuel and climate change crisis.

    It’s neither quick nor the best way, because we will be out of uranium long before those issues could be addressed. Even today, 1/3 of the uranium burnt comes from decommissioned nuclear rockets, not from new mining, and at current rate of use, there is less than 100years of uranium reverse left. And it takes a decade to built one nuclear power plant, to power the whole world you would need 20 times as many as there are in the world today, for which neither the money, nor (and what’s more important) the raw materials and educated workforce to operate them are available.

    What we should have been doing is, starting in the 60s and 70s, adopting breeder reactors so that we can give ourselves a few thousand years time to look for develop technologies, COMBINED WITH the end of growth, that means setting a limit of the population times consumption quantity and never exceeding it. All the technology in the universe can’t help you if you’re growing your resource use exponentially.

    But we didn’t do that, so the only available option right now is the reduction of the population times consumption quantity.

  13. Chloride

    @GM, the paucity of uranium is actually not a major problem. Firstly, the newer Gen 4 reactors are much better at utilizing uranium (typically using only 0.5% of uranium is utilized in current ones). The new reactors will have double or triple the efficiency of current ones. Now, the average concentration of uranium in the Earth’s crust is around 2.7 parts per million, and soils associated with phosphate minerals can contain around 50 – 500 ppm of uranium. Some shales and phosphate rocks contain 10-20 ppm of uranium, and given their abundance, are estimated to contain a total quantity of uranium perhaps 8,000 times that of the rocks currently being explored. Even mining these very low-grade ores would allow the recovery of energy with an EROEI of 15-30. Plus, the major problem with our use of nuclear fuel is the lack of reprocessing and extraction which could give us much more than we have now. Plus, uranium is not the be all of everything. Thorium technology promises much more efficiency, especially when used the molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors. There are large reserves of thorium (about 1.2 million tonnes) known in minerals containing around 12% thorium; the mean abundance of thorium in the Earth’s crust (around 8 ppm) is three times that of uranium, and since all the thorium can (must) be “bred” into uranium 233 as the fissile fuel, with many safety advantages over the uranium-238 to plutonium-239 breeder route, this could also be supplied in abundant amounts. As you note though, we indeed should have been adopting breeder reactors and it’s a pity we did not do this, and workforce is an issue; we do need many more trained nuclear engineers. However, as of now, no other technology including solar and wind promises such a quick and large scale source of energy. The technology largely exists, what is necessary is political and social initiative, and we can be glad that Obama seems to understand this.

    @Wes and Jon; Solar and wind have problems which nuclear currently does not. For instance you talked about mining; the mining of silicon and its disposal is a major problem. Wind power may need vast tracts of land to be evacuated (although offshore farms can compensate partly for this_ Plus, we still need to make solar cells more efficient than about 30%. In addition, solar cells will need base load power when the sun is not shining which will have to come from fossil fuels. Sure, both solar and wind can make dents in specific local regions and will be an important part of the mix, but overall the technology that we already have that produces the most energy per pound of raw material is nuclear, energy which can be deployed everywhere in the world. Plus, the cost of a nuclear plant lies most in the licensing process which involves two separate unnecessary licenses. A lot of this has to do with the NRC being overly cautious; at one point the NRC mandate even called for reducing the radioactivity levels in a power plant below background levels which was ridiculous. A lot of the unnecessary features and legal roadblocks in a typical licensing requirement can be cut down. In addition, the new Gen 4 reactors, especially the molten salt reactors are small, leading to both high neutron density and lower energy usage. If all these improvements were implemented nuclear power would not need as many subsidies at all. To begin with of course, if you support subsidies for renewables you should also not have a problem with supporting them for nuclear. But as a recent EIA outlook report indicated, if you look at the total levelized unsubsidized costs of the emission-free technologies, nuclear is a little bit more expensive than biomass, gas and geothermal. But it comes out ahead of coal, hydro, wind and solar. The unsubsidized numbers for wind and solar do not look so pretty. As mentioned before, the technology is there and can be readily improved, but what we need is political initiative, and it’s great that President Obama is spearheading it.

  14. Chloride

    Comment in moderation

  15. GM

    @Chloride:

    I know all of that, but you are forgetting something very important, which I mentioned in my previous post – the technology exists, but we are out of time to implement it because we are already passed Peak Oil with gas and coal to follow, and it will take several decades to build the power plants and educate the people who will build them and operate them. We don’t have that time. Also, nuclear energy does little to address the problem with transportation fuels, you can’t fly airplanes on batteries. You can synthesize fuel given enough energy but then you EROEI goes down even more. BTW, I don’t think your EROEI estimate includes the building of the power plant, because it quite higher than everything I have seen before, and building the infrastructure is actually the main energy expenditure for nuclear.

    And all of the above completely ignores growth – if the population becomes 10 billion at 2050 and we want those 10 billion to live at the level of Europeans, we will needs 6 to 7 times more energy than we do right now. And energy isn’t the only limiting factor (Liebig’s law, you know) – we will be out of rare earth and many not so rare metals by then

  16. Chloride

    Sure GM, the population growth can surely (and probably will) kill all of us. But given the timelines for solar and wind that are being projected right now and the problem of geographical distribution and base load, they can only make a limited dent. As for educating people, I think it will still be quicker to educate people about nuclear since a lot of trouble-shooting has been done for the past fifty years compared to solar, wind etc. I don’t think we are completely out of time (I mean sure, we are quite late as you indicated) and solar and wind will certainly be contributors in specific situations, but we have to do something and do it quickly. As for the EROEI, the dominant energy cost in nuclear energy is usually regarded to be in enrichment rather than construction. It is around 17 for diffusion enrichement and higher for the more efficient centrifuge enrichment; it is will be even higher for the compact molten salt reactors, thorium reactors or (even better) the modular pebble bed reactors that are coming online. And sure, the EROEI for transportation would be lower but it would probably be even lower for other sources making the productiong of liquid fuels with nuclear one of the few viable options. Right now the choices are many, but hydrogen or methanol could be two possible fuels (although I am skeptical about hydrogen; methanol looks more promising and is not as much talked about as it should, for instance take a look at the book “The Methanol Economy”). Lovelock himself says that while it won’t be a true fix (in the ideal sense), it can be the only thing we can start doing now on a large scale and the only thing that can dramatically reduce CO2 emissions in the short term. Let’s see how Obama handles the practical aspects.

  17. GM

    Sure GM, the population growth can surely (and probably will) kill all of us. But given the timelines for solar and wind that are being projected right now and the problem of geographical distribution and base load, they can only make a limited dent.

    I never said that solar and wind can save us, in fact the scalability problem is maybe even worse there.

    The only thing that realistically can be done right now is downsizing of everything so that we can at least avoid the crash, because if we crash, we won’t even be able to rebuild after that as in the process resources will be exhausted even more and knowledge and expertise will be lost

  18. Chloride

    -The only thing that realistically can be done right now is downsizing of everything so that we can at least avoid the crash, because if we crash, we won’t even be able to rebuild after that as in the process resources will be exhausted even more and knowledge and expertise will be lost

    Couldn’t agree more!

  19. Another Adam

    “But it seems to me that now that Democrats have lost their supermajority in the Senate, it may be necessary to give some ground on these areas if we want a real energy plan to go through.” This has always been the case for a common sense solution. You can’t have everything and waiting for a perfect solution has brought us to a stand still. Make something and then pefect it as you go. This is the nature of progress. Very seldom does a mture technology get introduced right off the drawing board.

  20. Another Adam

    @Chloride and GM. Downsizing is neither realistic nor practical. There is no real incentive for it yet. The consequences are still either minor or too far into the future for any one to be concerned enough to downsize. What can we do about avoiding the crash today that is realistic? That is the question.

  21. GM

    I am not talking about what is politically possible, I am talking about what is physically required. The two are very detached at present and this is the problem, but we all know whose laws hold up in the end

  22. Jon

    Solar and wind have problems which nuclear currently does not.

    Solar and wind may have some problems, but nuclear has even more.

    Time Magazine: “new nuclear energy is on track to cost 15¢ to 20¢ per kilowatt-hour.”

    Ouch. Wind is easily half that or less. (And I bet “new” means that 15-20 cents doesn’t include decommissioning and waste storage costs.)

    Joe Romm:

    Right now, efficiency, recycled energy, wind, biomass, geothermal, new hydro (!), concentrated solar thermal, and even PV [roughly in that order] can deliver low-carbon power cheaper than whatever price you can get guaranteed by a nuclear vendor or utility in this country.

    This isn’t to say that nuclear doesn’t have applications and can’t be explored, but there are other avenues that are a much better investment.

  23. GM

    Time Magazine: “new nuclear energy is on track to cost 15¢ to 20¢ per kilowatt-hour.”

    Price is irrelevant, what has to be considered is things like EROEI, how much resource there is to be exploited and what the environmental impacts will be. Price is somewhat correlated to EROEI, but the other factors are completely externalized most of the time

  24. Jon

    “Price is irrelevant.”

    Tell that to people paying their electric bills. If you want to solve this problem in a politically practical way, electricity prices are relevant. I know what you’re saying about externalities, but the value of an externality is a politically controversial topic. If you can give people electricity that is as safe as possible, and at a price comparable to what they were paying before, then you’ve avoided that controversy.

  25. GM

    Tell that to people paying their electric bills. If you want to solve this problem in a politically practical way, electricity prices are relevant. I know what you’re saying about externalities, but the value of an externality is a politically controversial topic. If you can give people electricity that is as safe as possible, and at a price comparable to what they were paying before, then you’ve avoided that controversy.

    The inconvenience caused by somewhat higher electricity prices is staggeringly insignificant compared to what is at stake.

    Of course, any solutions to the sustainability crisis by necessity involve doing away with anything resembling a capitalist free market economy and substituting money with costs in terms of energy and materials used, the whole notion of “prices” would change if this is to happen (which it won’t so don’t worry about it)

  26. Jon

    The inconvenience caused by somewhat higher electricity prices is staggeringly insignificant compared to what is at stake.

    No doubt the stakes are high. But are enough people convinced of that to make it politically viable? One thing to remember is that a good part of the population is genuinely poor. An increase in their electric bill can be significant. So your problem is that you need to 1) convince people that the stakes are high enough that so they want to make a sacrifice (politically, austerity is a hard sell to say the least), and 2) figure out how to cushion the economic impact for people who are economically struggling (and in my experience, *everyone* wants to claim that they’re economically struggling).

    I think the answer is not to get out the sackcloth, but to put our existing resources to work, while convincing people that we need to get rid of fossil fuels and switch to something else. It can be about building something new. Of course there will be new winners and losers too, which is a political problem, and probable the political part is the hardest–the descendants of Standard Oil aren’t rolling over for us and won’t any time soon…

  27. GM

    No doubt the stakes are high. But are enough people convinced of that to make it politically viable? One thing to remember is that a good part of the population is genuinely poor. An increase in their electric bill can be significant. So your problem is that you need to 1) convince people that the stakes are high enough that so they want to make a sacrifice (politically, austerity is a hard sell to say the least), and 2) figure out how to cushion the economic impact for people who are economically struggling (and in my experience, *everyone* wants to claim that they’re economically struggling).

    You aren’t telling me anything new, I am fully aware of the reception any such policies will receive. This doesn’t make them any less necessary though, because it is not politics that we are playing with here. It is our most basic animal instincts that will oppose any reduction in lifestyle and consumption, and most importantly, numbers.

    This is why I have come to the conclusion that if anything is to be done about the crisis, it will be a top-down solution implemented by force. The questions are:

    1) are there people with power willing to go there
    2) are there people with sufficient power to do it
    3) related to the first, is it even possible to gather enough power to do it, i.e. what happens when the troops you send against the protesting crowds rebel against you

    With all the talk about various conspiracies, the available evidence says that there are no such people, so we will end up self-destroying ourselves in a very ugly way over the course of the next century…

  28. Jon

    It is not politics that we are playing with here.

    Of course it is. Any time you propose influencing people by power of law or government, it’s politics.

    You sound like you might be a right wing troll sock puppetting what you (wrongly) think are the ideas of the people you oppose.

    So I’m signing off this discussion…

  29. Eric the Leaf

    @GM,
    I am impressed with your knowledge of energy, resource depletion, population dynamics, and human ecology. I have urged Chris and Sheril to learn more about and to address these issues more aggressively for at least a couple of years, since I believe they are talented writers and have an audience. Keep up the good commentary.

  30. Chloride

    Jon, as GM says, the question is one of EROEI as I clarified above. Secondly, the price is not the important variable if only a handful of exceptionally well-endowed nations can afford solar or wind power and deploy it. We have to look for global solutions. Thirdly, there are flaws in Romm’s analysis and he does not seem to focus on the political and geographical barriers to renewables. Fourth, as I noted, the cost of nuclear will be significantly low for the Gen 4 reactors whose designs and deployment strategies are available compared to any large-scale solar or wind plans (for instance the new reactors like the SCR can lower costs simply based on increased efficiency among other variables). And of course as GM says, the high price increasingly will be a small price to pay given the stakes of climate change and environmental catastrophe. We cannot have the best solution, but we need the best one under trying circumstances, and we need it as soon as possible.

  31. GM

    @GM,
    I am impressed with your knowledge of energy, resource depletion, population dynamics, and human ecology. I have urged Chris and Sheril to learn more about and to address these issues more aggressively for at least a couple of years, since I believe they are talented writers and have an audience.

    They are and I am sure that they, and even Nisbet, are well meaning and sincerely think that the they are right; but right now they are doing more harm than good, unfortunately.

    Where I claim to have connected one more dot than most is making the connection between the sustainability crisis and religion. Not that others haven’t before that, this was talked about back in the 60s and 70s, but for some very strange it is absent from the discussion today, both among atheists and people concerned about Peak Oil and Climate Change. But religion is very intimately connected to those problems, because those problems stem from our failure to understand our place in the world, and the major source of misinformation on the subject is religion, of course with the caveat that the initial causal relationship might have been the inverse, which doesn’t really matter at this point though.

    That’s why it is vital to talk about these things and not treat religion as a sacred cow, because if we don’t sacrifice that cow, we’re all dead. This is for fundamental-level reasons, but as the events unfold there will be some very practical issues, as we all know people who think they will got to heaven are much more ready to go to war and fight hard, etc.

    Because the other crucial insight, although this one is really indefensible scientifically, but very likely to be true, based on historical evidence, is that, as I said before, overshoot is the ultimate cause of collapse, but social upheaval is usually the proximal. And we are in a particularly bad situation right now compared to ancient civilizations because the majority of people back then were simply ignorant and uneducated, and were also used to living in poverty, while now we have huge number of people who are not only ignorant, but misinformed, with a sense of entitlement and expectations for having more stuff tomorrow.

    So I am very pessimistic about the future, but these things have to be talked about openly

  32. Jon

    That’s why it is vital to talk about these things and not treat religion as a sacred cow, because if we don’t sacrifice that cow, we’re all dead.

    Give it up. GM is trying to be an agent provocateur of some sort. Someone has a lot of time on their hands. A twisted sense of humor too.

  33. Adeist

    Why is there a link to a video about Pascal’s Wager?

  34. paulina

    I’m curious that you don’t distinguish in this post between giving ground on nuclear in terms of how the legislation gets written and giving ground on nuclear in terms of how we talk about clean energy and clean energy jobs.

    Could you say a little more about that?

  35. Adeist

    paulina,

    The post was clearly talking about giving ground in the sense of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Greens have opposed and will still oppose more nuclear/coal/oil, but they have to be included to be able to get any legislation at all through. The question of reclassifying nuclear as “clean” wasn’t under discussion.

    But what is “clean” or “dirty” is just a matter of your priorities and context. Is global warming a bigger threat than nuclear waste? We are told that global warming is a global disaster. Nuclear waste, on the other hand (if it is anything more than an engineering issue) is a far more local problem. So from the point of view of dealing with global warming, nuclear doesn’t emit CO2 and is therefore relatively “clean”. You could say the same about wind, hydro, and solar power – all of which do damage to the environment – they are only “clean” in this relative sense.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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