President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on January 25 contained distressing news for opponents of global warming who recognize the need to begin substantially reducing reliance upon carbon-based fossil fuels.
"Over the last three years," Obama said, "we've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration. And tonight, I'm directing my administration to open more than 75% of our potential offshore oil and gas resources." The next day, CNN reported, Washington announced "plans to sell off oil and gas leases on 38 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico seafloor in a new domestic energy push."
The extraction of natural gas in the enormous volume sought by the Obama Administration depends primarily on a vast nationwide increase in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract this energy resource from shale rock. Fracking is the process of pumping chemicals at high pressure into the ground to crack the rock and release the gas within.
Obama announced that with the relatively recent development of fracking technology the country now "has a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years" — and he made it clear every drop of that resource should be exploited.
The growing popular movement against fracking argues that it is a serious danger to water supplies, among its other unwelcome attributes. Obama sought to refute this concern in his speech: "I'm requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use."
None of the millions of New York State acres slated for fracking is on "public lands," not that merely disclosing the chemicals would do any good. Activist opposition has delayed fracking so far, but key politicians such as Governor Andrew Cuomo and powerful business interests are applying their own high pressure to legalize the process soon.
The Obama Administration justifies the increased production of natural gas because it emits a lower percentage of carbon dioxide when used, but that's deceptive. Burning gas for electricity emits 30% less carbon dioxide than oil, and about 45% less than coal. But recent studies have shown that the process of fracking releases sufficient stores of methane into the atmosphere to compensate for any reduction in carbon from natural gas. Methane creates a greenhouse heat trap about 20 times greater than carbon dioxide.
President Obama spoke of developing renewable, non-fossil energy resources, declaring "I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany." But the U.S. is far behind and will remain so given its fixation of oil and gas. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, S. Julio Friedmann, head of the Carbon Management Program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, wrote: "China has become a global hub for energy innovation. . . . The scale of its [clean energy] effort simply dwarfs every other on earth. . . . China's clean energy investment and deployment will dominate climate and trade trajectories for decades."
According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (January 10):
The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth's atmosphere. . . . Since fossil-fuel burning power plants and infrastructure built in 2012-2020 will produce energy — and emissions — for 40 to 50 years, the actions taken in the next few years will set us on a path that will be impossible to redirect. Even if policy leaders decide in the future to reduce reliance on carbon-emitting technologies, it will be too late.
Obama warned about global warming and articulated support for solar and wind power when he campaigned for the presidency in 2008, but his principal environmental commitment in reality is obviously to oil, gas and — harmful in a different way — nuclear power.
The only time during his annual address that he mentioned the words "climate change" was in justifying his quest to develop ever more greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels by blaming the obstructive Republicans: "The differences in this chamber [Congress] may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change."
The Obama Administration has made no serious attempt to galvanize the American people behind a campaign to halt global warming. Nor has it played a constructive role in the yearly UN conferences of 191 nations and the European Union to halt climate change.
Assessing the failure of the last UN conference two months ago in Durban, South Africa, Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, declared: "Developed countries, led by the United States, accelerated the demolition of the world's international framework for fair and urgent climate action. And developing countries have been bullied and forced into accepting an agreement that could be a suicide pill for the world."
President Obama received praise from much of the environmental community after he announced on January 18 that that he was rejecting a proposal by TransCanada Corp. to construct the $7 billion, 1,700 mile Keystone XL pipeline from Canada's tar sands in Alberta to U.S. oil refineries in Texas. But that's only a part of the story. The odds are that the pipeline will indeed be constructed.
By late last year the Obama Administration was besieged with protests from the environmental movement to reject the pipeline because it signified the government's increased intention to rely on fossil fuels. In addition, residents of several Midwestern states objected because the pipeline was designed to pass over the huge Ogallala Aquifer, upon which the region depends.
Obama's solution was to delay a decision until after the election, and to request that TransCanada reconfigure the pipeline route.
Sensing an opportunity to embarrass the administration, pro-fossil fuel Republican leaders in Congress, who deny human activity affects the climate, demanded Obama make his decision public by February 21. Obama then decided to reject the proposal on the grounds that Washington needed more time to study the matter, earning applause from the environmental movement. TransCanada is already developing an alternative route in the full expectation that it will be accepted several months after the election.
Opposition to tar sands isn't just because it's a dirty oil that generates 6% more carbon emissions than petroleum from other regions. The expensive tar sands project is part of an expanding parcel of greenhouse fuels that Washington champions and subsidizes while paying token attention to alternative renewable energy resources and making no attempt whatever to educate the public about the dangers of global warming.
By greatly increasing oil and gas drilling and calling for construction of new nuclear power facilities, the Obama Administration has just upped the ante in a big way. It seems logical that those who perceive the dangers of climate change and reliance on fracking and fossil fuels will respond by building even stronger the local and national movements for ecological sanity.
Donna Goodman is an activist in New York's Hudson Valley, an elected statewide union delegate (UUP), a member of the Climate Action Coalition, Middle East Crisis Response and several other local groups, and the copy editor of the Activist Newsletter.