WASHINGTON — On the eve of the Obama administration’s release Tuesday of a report warning about grave consequences of climate change, presidential counselor John Podesta went into the White House briefing room and crowed about fossil-fuel production in words that could have been penned by Dick Cheney.
“The United States is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world and the largest producer of gas and oil in the world,” Podesta declared. “It’s projected that the United States will continue to be the largest producer of natural gas through 2030. For six straight months now, we’ve produced more oil here at home than we’ve imported from overseas.”
Podesta went on to say that as part of the “big increase” in oil and gas production, “we’re back on track to produce more oil and gas in the Gulf” of Mexico. As for environmental concerns related to all this production, “that can be dealt with through the proper application of the best practices to produce that oil and gas.”
It was a jarring juxtaposition: a new warning Tuesday about threats to life, health and commerce posed by carbon emissions, preceded by a boast Monday about record levels of carbon-fuel production. This is the contradiction at the heart of President Obama’s climate-change policy.
The president has made serious progress with renewable fuels and with energy efficiency (a new rule limiting carbon output at existing power plants, due next month, will be another big step) but this is being offset by increased production and export of fossil fuels.
“I don’t see how you can square it,” says Joe Romm, a physicist who used his Climate Progress blog at the liberal Center for American Progress to question Obama’s “Jekyll and Hyde” approach. “If we constrain our carbon emissions a little bit but we still produce more and more fossil fuels and then we sell them to other people who burn them, then that doesn’t solve the problem. Obama is not pulling any punches on the climate science, but he’s touting an energy policy which basically assumes the climate science doesn’t exist or it’s not true.”
Those words are particularly noteworthy because Romm worked for Podesta, who founded and ran the Center for American Progress before joining the Obama White House. And the sentiment is widespread. Leaders of 18 prominent environmental groups wrote to Obama this winter, saying that what the White House calls its “all of the above” energy strategy “accelerates development of fuel sources that can negate the important progress you’ve already made on lowering U.S. carbon pollution, and it undermines U.S. credibility in the international community.”
Similar contradictions can be seen in other policy areas. Obama set out to rein in Bush administration overreach but has presided over a record number of drone strikes. He advocates for a more humane immigration system but has deported a record number of illegal immigrants.
Often, Obama has been more pragmatic than his conservative critics give him credit for; he has, for example, taken into account the economic and national security benefits of more domestic oil production. But his pragmatism also means he hasn’t advanced his own policies as forcefully as he could, even though he is maligned by conservatives as if he had.
Podesta, articulating Obama’s all-of-the-above strategy, told reporters Monday that the administration is “firing on all cylinders when it comes to producing more energy, cleaner energy, and more energy efficiency, as well as combating climate change.”
After Podesta’s presentation, a reporter observed that it seemed like “a wholehearted endorsement of fracking” (an increasingly popular method of producing natural gas) and that Obama had similarly lauded the technology.
Podesta responded by endorsing natural-gas fracking “as a bridge, if you will, from a world in which there’s still a need for fossil fuels to power our economy.”
But Romm, the climate-change expert, says industry has been using the “bridge” argument for three decades. There’s now some evidence that methane leaked in the transport and production of “clean” natural gas could erase the carbon advantage it has over coal.
“The science says you’re going to need to leave most of the carbon, the fossil fuels, in the ground if you don’t want to render large parts of the planet uninhabitable,” he argues. Yet the Obama administration proceeds with fracking, new coal production leases and export terminals and drilling in the Arctic — an all-of-the-above strategy that “used to be the Republican mantra.”
Now it’s not a mantra. It’s a contradiction.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.