Obama's Meaningless 'All of the Above' Energy Strategy is Infuriating Both Environmentalists and Fossil Fuelers

by Jeffrey Ball | January 30, 2014

photo credit: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

In the lexicon of Washington superficialities, one sound bite has become particularly pervasive. That bromide is the Obama administration’s handle for its energy approach: “all of the above.” Obama has used it, for example, to tout two achievements of the largely unpredicted domestic-energy boom that has played out during his presidency: the country’s runaway production of unconventional oil and gas and its rapid ramp-up of renewable energy.

On the surface, it’s hard to argue with a phrase this anodyne—which, presumably, is why the administration has been flogging it so hard. President Obama touted it again in his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening. “The all-of-the-above energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working,” he said, “and today, America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades.”

As a statement of fact, “all of the above” neatly describes the nation’s energy shift. But as a summation of strategy, it’s so general as to be meaningless. It’s so opaque that it’s succeeding mostly in angering all the special interests involved.  

Environmental activists argue the administration isn’t doing enough to cut carbon emissions; fossil-fuel producers lambaste the administration for waging what they label an elitist war against domestic fossil fuel. That these two sides are at odds should surprise no one. But the way their mutual anger is playing out underscores a powerful political tension that Obama’s all-of-the-above rhetoric is failing to elide.

That tension is the conflict between those who want to make the nation’s energy system more self-reliant—or, to quote another Washington standby, to make the U.S. “energy independent”—and those who want to make the nation’s energy system less carbon-intensive. Domestic coal, oil, and natural gas are, by definition, American. But, at least compared to renewable energy, they’re not, in the sense of their carbon-dioxide emissions, “clean.” Polls suggest that this difference isn’t broadly registering with the public. But it’s absolutely registering among powerful constituencies in Washington, and it’s likely to define the nation’s energy debate for years to come.1

The Obama administration’s embrace of domestic oil-and-gas drilling has infuriated its environmentalist base. Earlier this month, 18 environmental groups sent Obama a letter criticizing his “all-of-the-above” strategy as too pro-petroleum. “America’s energy policies must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” they wrote, “not simply reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” They added: “We believe that a climate impact lens should be applied to all decisions regarding new fossil fuel development, and urge that a ‘carbon-reducing clean energy’ strategy rather than an ‘all of the above’ strategy become the operative paradigm for your administration’s energy decisions.” Translation: Oil is bad, even if it’s American, because burning it emits carbon dioxide.

The letter went on to outline several upcoming “key decisions” for the administration. Among them: whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada’s oil sands to Texas oil refineries. Environmental activists have criticized the pipeline, which they say would significantly boost U.S. carbon emissions. The State Department said in a draft environmental report last year that the pipeline wouldn’t significantly affect U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. A further State Department report on the pipeline’s likely environmental effect is expected in the coming weeks. 

The environmentalists’ call for an American energy policy predicated on climate concerns is likely to prove a tough political sell. As the Pew Research Center has reported, 67 percent of Americans say there is solid evidence the earth is warming, and among those people, more attribute the warming to human activity than to natural patterns. But believing that warming is occurring doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing government attempts to do something about it, Pew results suggest. In a separate Pew poll this month, Americans ranked “dealing with global warming” second-to-last among potential political priorities and “dealing with the nation’s energy problem” in the bottom half. As for building the Keystone pipeline, the Pew poll this month found that 65 percent of Americans support it.

While environmental activists seethe, the administration also has taken flack for its all-of-the-above energy approach from coal backers, who argue that the government’s attempts to curb climate change have been too severe. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed carbon limits for new power plants that would make it exceedingly tough to build coal-fired plants that lack technology to capture their carbon-dioxide emissions and then store that carbon dioxide underground (that technology has yet to be effectively rolled out at scale). Next, the EPA is expected to propose tougher emissions standards for existing coal-fired plants.

Coal country is fuming. In December, Senator Mitch McConnell held what he called a “pro-coal listening session” in the town of Pikeville, Kentucky to give his constituents a chance to vent about the administration’s “War on Coal,” as he put it in a statement. “Yes, we need an ‘all of the above’ strategy to develop our domestic energy sources. But coal provides 40 percent of the country’s electricity and over 90 percent of Kentucky’s electricity,” McConnell said in the statement. He added: “Clearly this administration—with its radical regulatory ideology—wants to eliminate coal as a viable fuel source and they don’t care who it hurts.”

McConnell’s worst fears may prove misplaced. Though U.S. coal production will fall for the next few years, due in part to the new limits on coal-plant emissions, it will start rising again after 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. At that point, the government projects, the U.S. will export more coal abroad, and it will use more coal to crank out electricity at home.

“All of the above” is accurate enough, as far as it goes. The nation’s energy system is unquestionably getting more diverse than it’s been in decades. But that diversification raises a host of thorny questions: what it means for the environment, for instance, and what it means economically for different industries and regions. Those are questions that can’t be answered by a catchphrase. And that’s why, as a political strategy, “all of the above” is proving perilous. Something for everyone to like is just another way of saying something for everyone to hate.

Jeffrey Ball writes the biweekly Resources column at The New Republic and is scholar-in-residence at Stanford University's Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, a joint initiative of Stanford's law and business schools.

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