President Obama’s Final State of the Union: What to Expect, and What to Hope For

January 11, 2016 | 11:18 am
President Obama during the 2014 State of the Union address. Photo: The White House
Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

In his final State of the Union speech tomorrow night, President Obama will certainly have a lot to say about the economy, terrorism, gun control, and health care. But he is also likely to address climate change, energy, and other issues that UCS works on more directly. Here’s a look on what he’s likely to say on these issues, as well as some things he should say about them, but may not.

A banner year on climate change

In last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama stated that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” and said he was “determined to make sure that American leadership drives international action.” By aggressively implementing his Climate Action Plan—especially EPA’s standards on the amount of carbon pollution that the nation’s power plants are allowed to dump into the atmosphere—and engaging in nonstop diplomacy with China, India, Brazil, and other key countries, the president and his team laid the groundwork for last month’s historic climate agreement in Paris. Expect President Obama to claim his share of the credit for this achievement, which blows a gaping hole in opponents’ arguments that other countries won’t join the United States if we take action on climate change. Also expect him to lay out the economic, environmental, and security benefits of such action, and to commit to keep working for additional progress on this critical issue until his last day in office. Not only is this the right thing to do; it also is good politics, as the American public—including a majority of Republicans—strongly supports regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

President Obama may well mention Mission Innovation, the commitment announced in Paris by the United States and 19 other countries to double the level of government investment in clean energy technology R&D over the next five years, and call for bipartisan support for this initiative. He may acknowledge the extension of the investment tax credit and production tax credit provisions for solar, wind, and other renewable sources in the comprehensive tax bill passed by Congress last month, and how this will continue the rapid increase in electricity production these clean energy resources have experienced since he took office in 2009.

He will likely discuss how climate-related impacts—including tidal flooding linked to sea level rise, forest die-back, wildfires, heatwaves, drought, health effects, and threats to iconic landmarks and to our electricity system—are increasingly affecting local communities across the country, and ask Congress to join him in increasing federal assistance to state and local governments to prepare for and cope with the consequences of climate change.

President Obama may also highlight the need for climate justice and equity to be key components of efforts to build resilience in communities on the frontlines of climate change, and put in a plug for his solar access initiative, which seeks to ensure that disadvantaged communities enjoy full access to clean, renewable forms of energy and benefit from the rapid growth of clean energy jobs.

Clean vehicles and fuels: good progress, and more to come

The increasing fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet is a major contributor to recent reductions in oil and gasoline prices; the president was part of a bipartisan group of Senators who helped pass historic legislation in 2007 that increased the federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for light-duty vehicles for the first time in 20 years, and he built on that success during his first term as president by adopting even more ambitious standards for new light-duty vehicles out to 2025. He now needs to ensure that the analysis and technology assessments that his agencies use as they prepare for next year’s mid-term evaluation of these standards is based on the best information and science. That will allow the next administration to have the best data in hand when assessing how to keep the 2025 standards strong.

In his 2014 State of the Union address, the president committed to keep working to improve vehicle efficiency, “by setting new standards for our trucks, so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump.” This spring, the Obama administration is set to finalize these standards to increase fuel efficiency in our heavy-duty trucks, which make up less than 7% of cars on the road but use over 25% of our oil. While strong, the administration’s proposed standards could still be improved, according to UCS analysis. Stronger standards would require a 40 percent reduction in fuel consumption by 2025—a technically feasible and cost-effective target that, when compared to the current proposal, would save more fuel, and sooner. When final, these standards will be another major component of the comprehensive strategy that’s needed to cut our oil use in half through efficiency and innovation, reducing the problems oil causes our economy, our security, our environment, and our climate.

President Obama also can and should do more to address the supply side of the equation. For the fact is that unnecessary leaking, venting, and flaring of methane dramatically increases the greenhouse gas emissions associated with extracting, refining, and producing a barrel of oil. The Obama administration has already proposed regulations to address methane leaks from new and modified oil and gas production; tomorrow night, the president should announce that not only will he finalize those standards, but that he will also move to set standards for existing drilling sites before he leaves office next year.

Grounds for caution on natural gas

As he has in previous State of the Union addresses, President Obama may refer to the nation’s expanding production and use of natural gas as a benefit to our economy and environment. It’s true that substituting natural gas for coal in electricity production can help reduce carbon pollution in the near-term, though just as with oil, there are fugitive methane emissions from gas production and use, which if large enough, could overwhelm these carbon benefits. But ultimately, we need to virtually eliminate carbon pollution from all sources—including natural gas—if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

An overreliance on natural gas over the long-term won’t allow us to achieve the emissions reductions needed to address global warming, and could crowd out essential investments in renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency. Also, as UCS’s toolkit on fracking makes clear, too many communities are being pressed to make decisions on new oil and gas production projects without access to comprehensive and reliable scientific information about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on their local air and water quality, community health, safety, economy, environment, and overall quality of life. President Obama should pledge that the federal government will take a stronger role in protecting these communities, and work with states to strengthen regulation and oversight of these industries.

Protecting the government’s ability to protect us

Just last week, the House passed H.R. 1155, the Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome (or “SCRUB”) Act, which as the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards points out, “would establish a new bureaucracy empowered to dismantle long-established public health and safety standards and would make it significantly more difficult for Congress and federal agencies to implement essential future protections.” Fortunately, the White House has already issued a veto threat for this ill-conceived legislation, should it ever reach the president’s desk. But this isn’t the first bad idea on “reforming” the federal regulatory process to be put forward by the current Congress, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. President Obama should make it crystal clear tomorrow night that he will continue to stand up to these efforts of special interests and their allies in Congress to undermine the ability of the federal government to protect the public’s health and safety.

There is also more that President Obama can do on his own on this front. For example, in 2013, he issued an Executive Order to improve chemical facility safety and security, but as my colleague Gretchen Goldman points out, the rules that provide better information for communities and protections against the risks of chemical accidents—the EPA’s so-called Risk Management Plan—are woefully out of date. The president should ensure these rules are updated before he leaves office.

Needed: a National Food Policy

While the president may once again refer to First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity, it’s unlikely he will address the disconnect between health and nutrition policies, on the one hand, and our national agricultural policy on the other. As UCS Food and Environment program director Ricardo Salvador and three colleagues put it in a November, 2014 Washington Post op-ed:

How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on Americans’ well-being than any other human activity. The food industry is the largest sector of our economy; food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality and the federal budget. Yet we have no food policy — no plan or agreed-upon principles — for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole.

While an executive order to establish a national policy for food, health, and well-being is likely a bridge too far in the president’s final year, the lack of a national food policy needs to be an issue in this year’s presidential campaign.

In the meantime, President Obama should make clear that he will defend healthy and sustainable food and farm policies in 2016, which will likely see the passage of at least one major food bill, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) Act. CNR sets nutrition standards and funding levels for school lunch and breakfast programs, and authorizes the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program, which provides food assistance to low-income families. It also authorizes the Farm to School program, which has been instrumental in connecting local and regional farmers with schools, providing a win for farmers and schools alike. President Obama can use his veto power to ensure that a CNR bill delivers healthy, affordable food for those who need it most. Additionally, he can ensure that any other food and agriculture legislation or federal rules are developed using sound science in order to protect our water, air, and soil, and our families’ health.

Reducing the threat from nuclear weapons

Less than three months after taking office, President Obama gave a stirring speech in Prague on reducing the threat from nuclear weapons. Sensibly, he sought to “put an end to Cold War thinking” and to “reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy.” He set forth a bold goal by declaring “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Almost seven years later, there has been far less progress toward those goals than many—presumably including the president—had hoped. Some of that is due to Russian intransigence and misbehavior, but despite those challenges, President Obama still has time and the authority to take steps that would reduce the nuclear threat.

He could begin tomorrow night, by declaring that the United States will remove its land-based nuclear-armed missiles from hair trigger alert, a dangerous posture held over from the Cold War that dramatically increases the chances of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. He could also cancel the proposed new nuclear-armed cruise missile, a dangerous new capability that lowers the threshold for nuclear use. In June 2013, based on a comprehensive Pentagon study of military requirements, President Obama declared that the United States could safely reduce deployed U.S. nuclear forces by one-third, but he has not done so. He could seize that opportunity in the State of the Union. Finally, he could declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies, a significant move that would fulfill his intention to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy.

By reducing the nuclear threat, each of these steps would lead to a significant improvement in U.S. and global security.

Making full use of the bully pulpit

President Obama can take a measure of satisfaction from the difference he and his administration have made on issues such as these that are of such vital importance to the future of all Americans. But there is clearly more work to be done, and the president has made clear he will use every remaining minute of his time in office to make more progress wherever he can.

Part of his focus over the next year—and beyond—should be on continuing to raise public awareness of the benefits of responsible government action on climate change, clean energy, public health and safety protections, arms control, and other critical issues.  This will not only build support for the actions he takes as president, but will help create positive pressure for continued constructive action after he leaves the Oval Office next January.