President Obama is set to make a big speech about energy tomorrow in Oklahoma. If advance press reports are correct, he will use his visit to the town of Cushing – a major hub in the nation's oil pipeline network – to announce his support for the southern leg of the Keystone pipeline, aka "Keystone Lite," which will run nearly 500 miles from Cushing down to the Gulf Coast refineries. The point of this southern pipeline is to help ease the flow of oil out of the "chokepoint" of Cushing, which, so the argument goes, will help to lower oil prices by increasing supply.
It won’t, of course. Oil is a global commodity, and whether or not this pipeline gets built will have virtually zero impact on oil prices. (Bryan Walsh has a good backgrounder on the Big Republican Lie about oil prices.) So let’s be blunt: The president is backing the pipeline now because it’s a quick-and-easy way to inoculate himself from attacks from Mitt Romney and other Republicans during the upcoming campaign that he is beholden economy-killing enviros and solar-power cronies.
But by backing the pipeline now, Obama opens himself up to other political dangers. In the fight over the Keystone pipeline last fall – which ended with the administration punting on whether to approve the project – the president won a lot of praise from clean-energy activists (and big donors who care about clean energy) for his willingness to stand up to Big Oil. And in recent weeks, he’s talked frankly about oil as "fuel of the past" and of the need to cut $4 billion in subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry. By endorsing Keystone Lite, he risks looking like just another hack who talks big about getting off oil but who, when it comes down to it, won’t take real risks to achieve it.
So tomorrow's speech will be an interesting moment, if only to see how far the president goes in playing kissy-kissy with the carbon kings. Some things to watch for:
How will he justify his support of the pipeline? In recent speeches, Obama has talked about fossil fuels as "the fuels of the past" and renewable energy as the fuels of the future. That’s a good distinction, and obviously true. But if that is the case, how will he justify okaying Keystone lite? Granted, this is a private investment, so if TransCanada – the company building the pipeline – wants to spend billions on it, that's up to them. But why should the president invest his own political capital in promoting the delivery of the fuel of the past?
Will he admit that he’s "a little nervous" about the extreme weather we’ve been having? "If there was ever a moment for talking about global warming, this would be it," activist Bill McKibben wrote in a recent post, talking about the record-breaking warmth lately seen in much of the U.S. But of course the president is not going to even mention the phrase "global warming," let alone discuss the obvious risks that a super-heated planet poses for the health and security of America. If he did, he’d run the risk of alienating the millions of voters who are scientifically illiterate and believe that global warming is some kind of green cult. And that’s no way to win an election, is it?
But the president might admit that rising global temperatures are starting to freak him out. Consider this exchange he had with Oprah the other day:
"We’ve had a good day," Obama said. "It’s warm every place. It gets you a little nervous about what’s happening to global temperatures. But when it’s 75 degrees in Chicago in the beginning of March it gets you thinking … "
"Something’s wrong,” Oprah interjected.
"Yeah," Obama said. "On other hand, we really have enjoyed the nice weather."
Will he pander to the natural gas industry? Oklahoma is not just the land of Sen. James Inhofe, global warming rodeo clown, but also of oil-and-gas billionaire T. Boone Pickens and Aubrey McClendon, the politically influential CEO of Chesapeake Energy and the self-proclaimed "biggest fracker in the world." Even though McClendon is no pal of the president's (McClendon told me he’s not voting for him this time around), the temptation for Obama to tout natural gas as a cleaner, better, more plentiful fossil fuel is huge. But he will be wrong in important ways. Here’s why. And if he expects any gratitude from the oil and gas mafia for expediting permits on the southern leg of the pipeline, he’ll be wrong about that too: McClendon and others just published an open letter to the president in The Oklahoman, calling on him to approve the entire pipeline immediately and criticizing him environmental regulations that will "cripple America’s energy production."
Will he mention the phrase "clean coal"? This slogan, an Obama favorite in the last campaign, has been notably absent in recent speeches, likely signaling Big Coal’s fall from political power. Will that change?
Will he admit that China is kicking our ass in the clean-tech revolution? One of the big stories in the energy world is about how China is using its manufacturing prowess to drive down the price of solar panels worldwide. If you care about the spread of solar energy, this is a good thing. On the other hand, if you care about American solar industry, this is not such a good thing, since it's making it harder for U.S. companies to compete. A few days ago, the Department of Commerce announced the imposition of modest tariffs for imports of solar cells from China, sparking talk of a trade war. Will Obama escalate this fight? Play it down? And what does it suggest about American energy policy that the president is backing a pipeline that will help open the flow of dirty oil from Canada during the same week his administration is levying a tariff on Chinese solar cells?
Will the president suggest that solving our energy troubles – not to mention confronting the climate crisis – will demand sacrifices from ordinary Americans? Will he argue that the end of the fossil-fuel era will require a radical rethinking of our ideas of progress?
Do pigs fly?