Obama’s Climate Legacy

Delivering on an Innovation Agenda

With Tuesday's State of the Union address, liberals are wondering how President Barack Obama will set the tone for major progressive priorities in his second term. By giving climate change a prominent mention in his second inaugural address last month, Obama has raised expectations of delivering on a green agenda over the next four years. Nevertheless, many environmentalists remain deeply disappointed over the failure of cap-and-trade legislation and the president’s hedging on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. They are as skeptical that he has the conviction to lead a fight against climate as they are of his willingness to battle intransigent Republicans in Congress.

What the criticism from the president’s green flank obscures, however, is the fact that he has been the pragmatic, pro-innovation and pro-technology climate champion we have needed all along.

Obama has passed massive policy initiatives to deploy clean energy technologies like renewables and nuclear, reduce dangerous pollutants and invest heavily in long-term clean energy innovation. The president’s first piece of major legislation, the 2009 stimulus, was also the largest clean energy spending bill in American history. Moreover, the administration has enacted the largest CAFE standard improvements since the 1970s and delivered on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act mandate to regulate air pollution from power plants.

Obama’s environmentalist critics almost always fail to mention that carbon emissions have fallen steeply since he took office — and not just due to the economic downturn. The United States is exceeding emissions reduction targets established by the nonbinding Copenhagen accord and the failed carbon pricing legislation. According to data from the Energy Information Administration, it is quite likely that U.S. emissions peaked in 2007, and that the nation will look back on Obama’s tenure as the beginning of a long-term downward trend in carbon pollution.

But the biggest source of emissions reductions in the past four years has been the switch from coal-fired power to cleaner natural gas. As the president highlighted in his 2012 State of the Union address, this too was enabled by federal policy. Over the course of three decades, the Department of Energy and other public research agencies worked closely with private-sector innovators to develop the hydraulic fracturing technologies that unlocked the nation’s vast shale gas reserves. These newly abundant resources made it an easy decision for utilities to favor cheap natural gas over increasingly expensive coal.

Obama, by investing in clean energy innovation, has clearly taken this history to heart: Instead of making dirty energy more expensive, the best way to reduce emissions is by making clean energy cheap.

Obama can begin his second term by embracing natural gas as a climate strategy and accelerating the displacement of coal power in the United States. The administration’s plans to pursue more stringent regulations on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants are an excellent start.

But the nation still needs truly zero-carbon energy in the long run. As we’ve seen in the United States and around the world, economic and scaling challenges have prevented renewables and nuclear from reducing emissions at the necessary pace. To develop and deploy better, cleaner and cheaper energy technologies, the United States must replicate the success of the shale gas revolution for zero-carbon technologies.

This will mean not only increasing federal funding for current programs in clean energy research, development, demonstration and deployment, but also a complete rethinking of how we approach zero-carbon energy innovation. Shale fracking became a successful technology because innovators were problem solvers. Basic and applied research were done in the field in order to improve and demonstrate new designs for gas exploration and production. Federal researchers worked actively in sharing expertise and enabling technologies with gas drillers, largely through a public-private research consortium called the Gas Research Institute. And the federal government subsidized the exploration of unconventional gas with a tax credit for 22 years. There are lessons here for renewables, next-generation nuclear, advanced batteries, carbon capture and other clean energy technologies.

Importantly, much of the infrastructure that made the shale revolution possible — including existing industries and pipelines, supply chains and regulatory regimes — predated the earliest shale fracking investments. This tells us that the lift for advanced zero-carbon energy will be heavier, since most of these technologies have yet to grow out of their niche markets. The development of robust markets, enabling infrastructure technologies, and demanding customers are essential for sustained innovation and deployment of zero-carbon energy.

Obama has done more than any politician to leverage America’s energy innovation system in the service of making clean energy cheap. During his first term, we saw the fruits of that system, and the powerful add-on effect that pollution regulation can have when viable technological substitutes are available. We can build on these successes and continue on the path toward increasingly cheap, reliable and clean energy if we fully commit to aggressive innovation across all technologies. That can be Obama’s climate legacy.

Alex Trembath is a policy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute; Max Luke is a policy associate at the Breakthrough Institute. Originally published at Politico.