Controversial phrase makes prominent return in Obama speech — and few are happy

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2014

As he stuck largely to an existing energy and climate strategy in last night’s State of the Union speech, President Obama also redeployed a phrase seemingly designed to please all sides in the roiling policy debate that tends to have the opposite effect.

“The all-of-the-above energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working, and today, America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades,” Obama said in his speech to a joint session of Congress.

In touting his “all of the above” energy strategy, the president slighted 18 environmental groups, including some of the largest in the nation, which asked him less than two weeks ago to strike that phrase from his vocabulary (E&E Daily, Jan. 17). At the same time, he did little to quiet his critics in the Republican Party and segments of the energy industry who say the words are meaningless.

Most of the major groups that signed that letter did not dwell on the particular phrasing in their public reactions to the speech. Instead, they largely pointed to Obama’s pledge to continue developing regulations through U.S. EPA to address climate change.

Earthjustice, the Environmental Defense Fund, Environment America, the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council — all of which signed the initial letter — joined the Center for American Progress, an administration-aligned think tank, to issue a joint statement last night. The groups said they “applaud the President for this climate change remarks tonight.” The statement did not mention Obama’s parallel support for oil and natural gas inherent in his all-of-the-above approach.

Conversely, the Sierra Club, which also signed onto the letter earlier this month, did not join the joint statement, opting instead for a blistering summation of the speech that acknowledged the climate pledge but said the “sum total of” Obama’s remarks was insufficient.

“If we are truly serious about fighting the climate crisis, we must look beyond an ‘all of the above’ energy policy and replace dirty fuels with clean energy,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in the statement.

Earthjustice also released a separate statement saying “all of the above” is “inconsistent” with Obama’s broader climate strategy.

“The United States should be placing our bets on ‘best of the above,’ not ‘all of the above,'” Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen said.

Conservatives were no happier with the speech. Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-industry think tank, dismissed it as “more lecturing about an ‘all of the above energy plan’ that discounts the benefits of America’s vast coal reserves and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that coal-fired energy supplies.”

Obama first deployed the phrase “all of the above” to refer to his energy strategy in the 2012 State of the Union address, and he has used it in more than 30 public appearances since then, according to a search of White House transcripts.

The debut of the phrase — which has been a part of energy policy discussions for decades — marked a shift in the president’s rhetoric around energy policy.

His 2009 address to Congress focused primarily on the push for a cap-and-trade bill while touting the clean energy investments made by that year’s economic stimulus law. In his 2011 and 2010 State of the Union addresses, Obama mentioned the need to embrace things like nuclear energy, “clean coal” and natural gas that rankle parts of his environmental base in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But only in the last three years has he sought to fully embrace the ongoing shale drilling boom that has caused oil and gas production to skyrocket and provided a needed boost to the economy. Last year, he pledged to “keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits” while also working with Congress to “encourage” ways to make natural gas production and use even cleaner, ideas that returned in this year’s speech (see related story).

The result of the all-of-the-above emphasis is an energy landscape that has left both sides dissatisfied. Industry groups and Republicans say he did not stick to his promise on speedier permits, while environmentalists have pushed the administration for stricter natural gas regulations.

“I don’t think he believes ‘all of the above,’ truthfully,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “He frequently has used that phrase, but his actions do not indicate he’s really serious about it, so if he uses it or not, personally I don’t think it means much.”

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) was illustrative of Republicans who complain that the U.S. energy boom has happened despite the president’s policies because so much of the growth in oil and gas activity has come on privately owned lands.

“His policies have actually led to a reduction in energy production on federal lands, and he tries to take credit for the things happening on private lands that he’s using his agencies like the EPA to go to shut down,” Scalise said after the speech.

Still, some Democrats are not bothered by the phrase.

“I think when he uses that phrase, it’s presenting us with a menu,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who is co-chairman of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. “There’s nothing wrong with that approach — and it leaves room for us to debate what we pick and choose on that menu.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said he was not bothered by the time spent on fossil fuel issues, as he embraced the president’s preferred nomenclature.

“I think you got to focus on what he said about continuing to significantly reduce greenhouse gases,” he said after the speech. “And he made it clear that it was part of an all-of-the-above message.”