In 4 years he spent a large chunk of $72 billion on corporate porkbarrel for 'green' energy companies so we know he likes some energy projects - we are just not sure he likes the kind that actually work.
Overall, he is among the top two anti-energy presidents in American history (1) yet to opponents of natural gas - the stuff that used to be promoted by environmentalists, at the same time they were gushing about ethanol - he is still not anti-energy enough, because he made plain in a speech what no president has ever made plain, including him during his re-election campaign - that we need to do something about climate change and that can't mean just shutting off all electricity.
That is not to say his actions show he believes in a realistic energy policy, but it's a start.
His EPA has declared war on natural gas, just like they declared water a pollutant when canoe lovers griped to them about a section of creek being too choppy for their recreation - and a Federal judge had to order them to stop blaming fracking without doing any studies - but the president can at least claim with a straight face that his unelected, personally-appointed political functionary has nothing to do with him and insist in speeches that we need a mix of energy solutions while making sure everything but solar and wind are blocked.
But hydraulic fracturing - fracking, now in its 70th year of use - critics who worry that it will cause the earth to deflate or bring on a cancer epidemic don't like that he is engaged in the same old politics most presidents have always done - secretly blocking science he dislikes while publicly claiming to care about data.(2)
President Obama referred to "cleaner-burning natural gas" and praised that it had reduced emissions.
Well, he was correct. CO2 emissions from the energy sector are back at early 1990s levels - like we said we wanted during the Kyoto meetings in the latter part of that decade and ever since - and coal emissions are even lower, those are back at early 1980s levels, putting the coal industry in a panic.(3)
Natural gas opponents instead want no energy. Like exaggerated claims about ethanol, environmentalist claims about the viability of solar and wind are shown to be made up the moment they are implemented - fortunately ethanol only wasted $8 billion a year and at least did something, even if it led to the higher emissions that everyone but environmentalists and Al Gore knew would happen. The tens of billions of dollars squandered on solar and wind are real money and have accomplished nothing but would have been terrific had they instead been used for basic research - and spread out to a lot more than campaign donors.
Sierra Club (but, really, insert any environmental group here that has positions against energy, food and medicine - which is to say, all of them) wants something for all of their 'get out the vote' efforts on his behalf. They are nervous that a president with nothing left to campaign for might deviate from Democratic anti-science talking points and do something that is good for the country and not simply push us back the 19th century.
But what these anti-natural gas people are doing is denying reality; they are now insisting that natural gas - and you can create any long chain of materials and events you want and include it in there - is as dangerous or more so than coal. It's a ridiculous assertion. Dr. James Hansen, the foremost advocate for climate change policy in the world, does not agree. Cleaner coal would make the global warming issue go away, he says, which means much cleaner natural gas would do even better - and nuclear power has saved almost 2 million lives that would have resulted from coal usage, he noted a month ago. Is he a shill for Big Energy?
Pennsylvania Democrats are also on the Obama bandwagon for more natural gas, as you would expect - they have a ton of it underground and it has been a boom to their economy without real environmental impact (4). Sen. Bob Casey said he plans to introduce legislation to put more natural gas fueling stations on interstate highways, which would mean even less foreign oil is used. It's a good idea.
Some cautious skepticism about whether or not this speech on climate and energy was just rhetoric is warranted. The President has played both sides when it comes to science - and certainly energy - far too often to be granted blind optimism. But he certainly evolves in his science stances. In 2008 he implied vaccines caused autism (5) and during the Bird Flu pandemic during his presidency his administration's policies kept vaccines out of the hands of people due to worries about adjuvants and multi-dose vials. Which have preservatives. Which is what some claim causes autism and what he referred to in 2008. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Deputy Commissioner for Medical and Scientific Affairs at the FDA, laid the blame for that squarely at the feet of the administration.
But the president hasn't publicly linked vaccines and autism since and it may be that he will see reason on fracking and perhaps Keystone XL also. He says he will approve Keystone XL if it doesn't impact the environment - government scientists have shown since 2010 that it will not - so he may end his term as the guy who really put America on the bridge to a cleaner energy future. He just has to ignore environmentalists who only want to retreat into the past.
(1) Why not Carter, who created the train wreck known as the Department of Energy? While it's true unchallenged public relations efforts made the public afraid of nuclear power during his term, he did not make it his personal mission to kill the industry the way President Clinton did. And Carter launched a synthetic oil program that so scared the OPEC countries that it single-handedly drove the price per barrel into the ground. Reagan may have been more pro-science in most regards than other presidents but he was no different when it came to cutting a program that had his opponent's name on it. The cost of oil was so low - and it needed to be high for synthetic oil to be viable - that Reagan ordered it cut and I think it might have paid off by now had it continued as a basic research project. Unless Clinton whacked that science too, like he whacked everything else.
(2) Oddly, and despite what you read if you partake of corporate science journalism, the only honest Presidents of recent memory about science were Republicans - Reagan approved every basic research program he heard about, that and the military seemed to have been the only things he wrote blank checks for, while Bush said he did not like human embryonic stem cell research with federal money but agreed to a compromise despite his moral objections - something Obama has been unable to do and Clinton never even considered. Yet if you ask most people which presidents are anti-science, they will say Republicans. Note to politicians who want to be liked in academia: if you want to have appeal, say one thing and then do the opposite.
Even Nixon did something Obama could not do - he let a NASA mission with someone else's name on it be completed rather than replacing it with his own - and he created the EPA and modern environmental legislation. Republicans can be jag-offs on social issues but when it comes to science funding and the environment, they are just plain better than Democrats.
(3) The good news is, they can remind politicians their employees are all union workers and get a bailout the next time an election rolls around.
(4) There is some, as in anything, including running the lights in Club Sierra - I mean Sierra Club. If you ever visit their headquarters, you'd know why it is easy to confuse the terms. Fox News only wishes it had as many highly-paid white people in posh spaces as Sierra Club does. I grew up in Pennsylvania and go back there for hunting every year and there is no question the aesthetics of energy extraction are not great. But telling people they can't work so I can have a nice place to hunt would make me more like a Sierra Club progressive than someone who actually cares about people.
(5) So did his opponent, Senator John McCain, but a Republican was never going to be deified by science academia as a savior, the way President Obama was. How many science media outlets mentioned his vaccine-autism beliefs? Just Science 2.0. The first decade of the 21st century was a giant science journalism fail, it was all cheerleading and advocacy. Not the good science cheerleading either, but rather the kind where journalists don't ask the awkward questions of people or politicians they happen to like. Here is hoping the second decade is better.