Can Obama’s green promise hold candle to Big Oil?

By Dev Nadkarni

In his second and final stint at the helm of the world’s most powerful country, President Barack Obama can afford to go for broke. He does not have to deal with any possibility of a reelection and knows that this is his opportunity to give his best shot at fixing things that are broken without having to soft pedal on the important issues.

The 57th inauguration speech, which he delivered last month, showed the sense of purpose with which he intends to deal with the slew of serious issues that have confronted the United States particularly in the past four years. There is clearly an undercurrent of urgency in the manner that he referred to one of the most contentious issues of them all – climate change, which received top billing in the speech. Interestingly, the subject received little attention in the run up to the election.

In last month’s inaugural address he said, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations … Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

Republican challenger Mitt Romney had trumpeted hard about America’s self sufficiency in fossil fuels and cutting imports and consequently dependency on the Middle East for the bulk of its energy needs. The powerful appeal of such a possibility sounded far more potent than any talk of developing alternative energy sources, which indeed Obama soft pedalled in the run up to the election.

Though experts raised doubts about the veracity of Romney’s prognostications, there was no counter to it from the Democrats, perhaps given the sensitivities around the promise of self-reliance in fossil fuels. But it is also true that new oil field discoveries promise to meet the nation’s fossil fuel needs domestically in greater volumes – a fact no politician would be unwise to undermine.


Easier said than done?

But with election past him, Obama is now emboldened to put greater emphasis on clean energy: “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition – we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise,” he said in last month’s inaugural speech.

“That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways, our croplands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

While it all has the familiar ring of the quintessentially stirring Obama speech, realpolitik will ensure that it is easier said than done. Coming months will show how far and what speed he can take America on this path – one that the country’s governments have always been loathe to tread, ignoring a succession of global accords, Kyoto being the most prominent of them, that have aimed at curbing and capping emissions down the decades, despite fierce public debate.

There is little doubt that legislating cuts in Carbon emissions will be as tough a task as ever for the new Obama administration. Big business interests based on the polluting smoke belching economy will do everything it can to put paid to that. But the President might have other avenues such as tougher regulations invoked through the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).

His zeal to leave a legacy of his presidency combined with the ‘nothing to lose’ attitude of his second term might well spur him on to bring in tougher regulations as early as next year. But none of that will happen without a fight and a thousand obstacles in his path, including possibly politicising the independent EPA, which indeed would be unfortunate.


Big Oil’s big job promise

But the President cannot afford to ignore the oil lobby completely especially at a time when it brings the promise of greater self-sufficiency – and jobs. One of the biggest project proposals currently is Keystone XL, a 2700 km long pipeline to be built from the state of Alberta in Canada all the way to Texas in the US. Environmental groups have raised grave concerns prompting the Canadian authorities to suggest alternative routes to protect ecologies that might be affected.

This is typically an old world, polluting, fossil fuel based project that runs counter to Obama’s new avowed philosophy of moving toward sustainable, clean energy. But the president simply cannot afford to ignore the great boost the project will bring to the job market, creating thousands of jobs in its wake. Unemployment has been the big bugbear of his first stint and he would undoubtedly be anxious to address it more than anything else.

Observers are keenly watching how the President will go about approving this project as he will be forced to keep the balance between its potential to create jobs, energy self-sufficiency for America and his new promise of cleaner greener world increasingly powered by renewable energy. It will be interesting to see how he hammers out a compromise – whether it will be a sensible, practical one or will succumb to the imperatives of realpolitik. It will be the litmus test for Obama’s new green promise.


Gored by Big Oil

If push comes to shove, will the President err on the side of green? Or will he succumb to the pressures of the old black? Just as former Vice President and presidential candidate – who made a bigger name for himself as champion of the environment – Al Gore did recently?

The former politician, who shot to fame with the controversial film “An Inconvenient Truth” and built a huge fortune himself around global warming and sea level rise, ultimately succumbed to the lure of big money from big oil last month. He sold his struggling TV network called “Current” to Middle Eastern TV network Al Jazeera.

After bagging Big Oil for two decades holding it responsible for all of the world’s environmental ills and building a fortune by doing just that, he sold it to a network that Big Oil owns. Gore sold his channel for $500 million to the Qatar-owned network. As everyone knows, Qatar’s dollars almost exclusively come from oil. It might be a great business decision but coming from someone who wore a holier than thou attitude and made great fame from it is a bit rich.

But then that’s the kind of compulsion and pressure that big money brings on ideology – no matter how idealistic or good for the world or for future generations it purports to be. Will Obama’s green intentions and promise have the lungs to breathe through the thick grey smoke of Big Oil to reach its goal of a world powered by sustainable, renewable energy sources?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, it is said. Hopefully, the President will have the courage, skill and strength to give the lie to the old adage.