The big question on the minds of environmentalists heading into tonight's State of the Union address was whether President Obama would even mention what was once considered among his most important policy goals: clean energy initiatives that would fight global warming.
They had to wait about 15 minutes into the speech to find out.
The Guardian newspaper reported Monday that some environmental leaders were concerned that Obama aides were advising the president to downplay or even avoid mentioning the words "climate change" -- instead keeping the speech tightly focused on the economy. The Environmental Defense Fund's Steve Cochran said there was concern that the administration would pull back on efforts to pass a clean energy and climate bill "because of a variety of political realities," while U.S. Sen. John Kerry said, "The president needs to underscore that climate and energy reform is a priority for 2010 as specifically as possible."
NRDC President Frances Beinecke wrote Tuesday that despite the naysayers, she was confident clean energy would get a prominent mention in the president's annual address to Congress. "President Obama will say that clean energy investments can generate jobs and keep America competitive," Beinecke wrote. "I also believe that during his speech President Obama will highlight the best way to unleash these opportunities: passing a clean energy and climate bill."
Beinecke had reasons to be confident. In December, she and other leaders met with Obama at the White House, and the president told her that he wants the Senate to take a comprehensive approach to America's energy and climate challenges. There were similar conversations at the Copenhagen climate conference in December, where Beinecke describes the president spending "15 hours sitting at the negotiating table and drafting parts of the Copenhagen Accord with his own pen."
Her confidence was not misplaced. When discussing his efforts to put the 1 in 10 Americans currently without a job back to work, Obama talked about rebuilding America's infrastructure, expanding high-speed rail, making homes and business more energy efficient, and investing in clean energy jobs. Later, he got even more specific about what it will take to do that:
It means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America. I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. This year, I am eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate. I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy; and I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future -- because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.
The president cited examples of clean energy jobs that have already resulted from last year's stimulus package, including a North Carolina company that will create 1,200 jobs nationwide helping to make advanced batteries and a California business that will put 1,000 people to work making solar panels. He said many more like them will be created with further investments.
Obama also expressed support for some things that won't sit as well with many environmentalists, including new nuclear power plants, more offshore drilling, and investments in "clean coal" technology. (Those all got big cheers from Republicans, who sat down as soon as the president turned to clean energy and climate legislation; some even laughed and jeered when the president mentioned the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change.)
In her Switchboard blog, Beinecke called Obama's speech a "full-throated call for clean energy and climate legislation that puts America back to work."
Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope had a similar reaction, saying in a news release that the president "is working very hard to rescue, restore, and rebuild the American economy and the middle class -- but he can't do it alone. While his administration has done more on clean energy and climate change than any other in history, much hangs in the balance until Congress acts."