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Recapping Obama’s Oval Office Speech

I was stuck in a flotilla of traffic during the speech last night, and my expectations were already set by senior Administration officials, so I had no hopes for specifics. In fact, while the omission of carbon pricing was glaring, I don’t know if that was the right time for a lecture on proper methods for reducing carbon emissions. I don’t think anyone wanted a long dissertation on the tailoring rule.

I also didn’t see the speech on TV, but heard it on the radio, and so I have no thoughts on demeanor or tone and think that’s all theater criticism anyway.

I think people are right to look at the section on the energy bill and have terrifying flashbacks to the health care debate, and the floating-above-the-top-of-it-all nature of things. It did sound like he just wanted a bill, and he wanted nothing to do with the words “climate change.” But Dave Roberts says that what he did discuss in specific terms had some merit.

What are the top energy, as opposed to climate, priorities? As it happens, most of the energy options on the table are mediocre-to-terrible (mainly Bingaman’s bill and Lugar’s bill). That side of the bill badly needs strengthening in three key areas if it’s to be a substantial step forward:

It needs tougher, more ambitious energy efficiency provisions, particularly focused on the built environment. More efficiency would yield more jobs, lower household costs, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. It needs a stronger renewable energy standard, one that spurs more renewable energy deployment than business-as-usual (unlike Bingaman’s meager [PDF] 15 percent by 2021) and is focused on renewable energy rather than clean coal and nuclear (unlike Lugar’s “clean energy standard“). Finally, it needs to invest a hell of a lot more money into clean energy R&D.

So what three policies did Obama choose to call out individually?

“Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development — and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.”

So energy efficiency and renewable energy were the only pieces referred to by name. That means more for policy writers than anyone at home, and it fell under the heading of “some believe,” but at least some didn’t believe that we need to find a way to make coal clean, or that we need to build more clean and safe nuclear power, or something dastardly like that.

If there was a commanding part of the speech, I’d say it was this:

One place we have already begun to take action is at the agency in charge of regulating drilling and issuing permits, known as the Minerals Management Service. Over the last decade, this agency has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility – a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves. At this agency, industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight. Oil companies showered regulators with gifts and favors, and were essentially allowed to conduct their own safety inspections and write their own regulations.

When Ken Salazar became my Secretary of the Interior, one of his very first acts was to clean up the worst of the corruption at this agency. But it’s now clear that the problems there ran much deeper, and the pace of reform was just too slow. And so Secretary Salazar and I are bringing in new leadership at the agency – Michael Bromwich, who was a tough federal prosecutor and Inspector General. His charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry’s watchdog – not its partner.

As I heard an analyst say last night, deregulation should be a dirty word. I would have been satisfied with the whole speech being a dissection of this theme. That was the greatest sin on this front, and that should be the greatest focus outside of legislation.

There’s nothing false about the critique that the speech was empty, full of platitudes, and basically cotton candy. Inside there were the nuggets of proper executive branch action and legislative steps on an energy, if not a climate, piece of legislation.

(But this from Marc Ambinder, that the White House is laying in wait to add a climate cap in conference, is just a total piece of nonsense. It’s exactly what they said about the health care bill, by the way, and there’s no reason to fall for it again.)

…We also do know for sure now that an energy bill is the top legislative priority, and it will have enough BP-bashing in it to compel passage. That doesn’t mean it will be worth doing yet, of course.

…I don’t want to give the impression that the “some have said” approach to legislating, the ability to never take a specific position and float above it all, is a good strategy whatsoever. It’s not. To the extent he got specific last night, it was OK, but there needed to be more “must have” and less “some believe”.

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David Dayen

David Dayen