Obama Launches Green Equivalent of Moon Mission

President Obama for the first time addressed the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday evening, on the Gulf of Mexico oil volcano.

The address came as scientists revised upward their estimate of how much petroleum is daily gushing into the Gulf, deciding it is between 35,000 and 60,000. Only 18,000 barrels a day is currently being captured, i.e. between a half and a fourth of what is spewing out.

In his speech, Obama pledged that BP would set up a special fund to compensate victims of the oil tsunami now assaulting the shores of the US along the Gulf of Mexico. He promised that BP and the US government efforts to clean up the oil and said he would set up a long-term Gulf Recovery program.

But beyond clean-up, Obama seized the moment to push for a fundamental reconsideration of the nation’s approach to transportation (petroleum in the US is mainly used to fuel automobiles and other vehicles). ITN has video:

The full transcript is here.

Obama insisted that there is a role for government both in regulating the petroleum corporations and in being a “catalyst” for jump-starting green energy companies, as China has. Presumably he is speaking of tax breaks, ease of obtaining loans, and other incentives. He compared a government crash program to enable green energy to putting a man on the moon.

In that part of his speech, the words of John F. Kennedy echoed in my mind:

‘ We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

As Obama pointed out, Kennedy faced his naysayers and doubters, just as green energy advocates do today.

Obama is entirely correct that government intervention is needed if we are to get a relatively quick and smooth transition to green energy, which which Greenpeace now estimates could be accomplished by 2050 with an investment of $7 trillion (beyond the $11 trillion the world will have to spend to keep power flowing to tomorrow’s bigger population at today’s rates).

But we need more than targeted, temporary tax breaks from the federal government. We need permanent tax breaks across the board for green energy companies, and we need federally backed loan programs.

As I argued yesterday, it would be helpful if the government stopped its massive overt and hidden subsidies for petroleum. In fact, Senator Bernie Sanders (my hero) is proposing an end to $35 billion in oil and gas tax breaks. But you wonder if Sander’s bill has a chance in a Congress so heavily indebted to Big Oil. Unless Obama can change the incentive structure in favor of green energy, his chances of success are slim.

Pro-active government tax breaks and other incentives for alternative energy are also highly desirable, as Germany has demonstrated. I was interested to discover that insurance was offered on wind turbines to encourage skittish companies to buy them. In the European Union as a whole, new wind energy generation has equaled or surpassed energy produced by new natural gas plants in recent years, as a result. In the US,
New Jersey is trying to make it easier for wind turbine companies to get loans. While the Obama administration gave out $3.2 billion in tax breaks to green firms last winter, these tax credits are temporary. I ask myself why.

Some American cities are not waiting for the Federal government. My neighbor, Toledo, Ohio, has developed a partnership of academics, businesses, workers and the city government to turn the place into a major solar equipment production hub.

But solar is lagging in the US, in large part because the federal government has not created a favorable environment for its growth (it produces less that 1% of America’s energy at the moment).

Toledo shouldn’t have to do this alone, folks. Lets help them, and let us use the federal government to do it.

16 Responses

  1. Sadly, Prof. Cole, I disagree that Obama has done anything even close to Kenndy’s “man on the moon” speech… I watched the speech and was very hopeful because some green energy stocks went up yesterday.

    Obama’s discussion of green energy was about as general and unspecific as possible. The energy bill he discussed in his speech is simply “business as usual”, which give out carbon permits for free to the largest emitters, spends billions on “clean coal” and enthanol.

    You cite Germany as an example for green energy… keep in mind, that Germany has a functioning Green Party, which is not beholden to corporate interests, unlike the corporatist “Demopublican” party (including Obama). Germany uses 1/3 of the electricity and 40% of oil as the US on a per capita basis. Last time I was there, it seemed they have a pretty good quality of life.

    We installed a home photovoltaic system; the incentives are paltry when compared to Germany or Ontario. The US is simply NOT interested in green energy. Obama’s credentials for energy are corporatist and status quo.

  2. Obama is going about this “green moon mission” for all the wrong reasons; he’s talking about the tired line of dependence on foreign oil, not talking about the very real possibility that large parts of the earth will be uninhabitable from climate change. In fact, he barely mentioned the environment in his speech at all – he obviously puts token mentions of wetlands into the speech, but I don’t get the feeling that he cares at all about the science of climate change and its relation to this catastrophe.

    That was a poor speech, full of lame appeals to Religion and the old American fallback, War. Calling this a “war”, and the oil a “siege” cheapens the fact that this is a man-made disaster. And we’d do well to not forget that fact, even if Obama does.

    • You always have to wrap it in the flag here in America.

      Prof. Cole failed to mention that JFK had it easy – the space race was patriotic pork; no Republican could oppose it. Democrats always have to do it that way because right-wing arguments are the only safe arguments. Making peace with China? Only Nixon was allowed to do it, because there was no way his lackey party could call him a traitor. There was no way Democrats could wrap that in right-wing-speak.

      It’s built into our fundamental political beliefs: the Right defends the Real America, the Left wants to change it into something else. Which is treason. Our people will accept tiny bits of this treason when they truly face destruction, and as soon as things get better they swing way to the right to prove they are not really traitors. Until you change this dynamic, you can change nothing.

  3. The comparison of Obama’s Green initiative to Kennedy’s space initiative is a telling one. What, I wonder, would have happened if Kennedy had tried to reach the moon using tax incentives loans to the private sector? The Kennedys understood the role of government in a way Obama does not.

  4. Professor? I would have to disagree with your metaphor, “…the oil tsunami now assaulting the shores of the US along the Gulf of Mexico.” What BP has managed to effect in the Gulf is America’s Chernobyl. This disaster will haunt the Gulf Coast for a long time. BP’s DeepWaterHorizon well head is compromised and oil leaks from the sea floor. BP has busied itself attempting to “salvage” the oil leaking and covering up the remainder of it’s mess. BP CEO Tony Hayward needs to be in a jail cell. That’s just my personal take on Hayward’s arrogance.
    Given that Prince Edward Sound has never fully recovered from the Exxon Valdez, the Gulf Coast may very well be effectively destroyed for several lifetimes. That manner of ecological devastation is criminal. Residents of the Gulf Coast have their lives in shattered ruin and BP is at fault. That manner of negligence seems worlds of criminal.
    The Obama gives a good speech. Sermon? Yeah, maybe a sermon. About time. It would be more than a little reassuring IF President Obama gave the Gulf Coast the same zeal-in-prosecution going after BP as he did to “healthcare overhaul/reform” or whatever that was. Obama did have the wind in his sails for that.

  5. Dr. Cole, I’ll take this American blarney seriously when the Americans put a surcharge on petrol and start paying the real cost of their fuel. The fact is that none of these “alternative technologies” have a chance of getting off the ground until there is a real market for them where the consumer actually shops, and the “real market” can only be created in time to avert the economic catastrophe that is looming through the American tax structure.

    • The only way we will accept such a tax is in exchange for the elimination of the income tax. See my comment above about having to disguise simple reforms with right-wing arguments.

      Problem is, an energy tax is regressive in that it will collect a higher % of the income of the poorest car-owners, like me. So there will have to be some kind of rebate check strategy, but the right-wing inequality cult will immediately start a long-term campaign to make the rebates resented, then despised.

      What we really need is a return to the tax structure that worked so well for us from 1935 to 1960, but we have already been brainwashed to believe that a 91% top rate never happened because surely it would have caused Communist tyranny. We got such high rates to work because the only way to evade them was for businessmen to reinvest in their own businesses, which would encourage a lot of the activity that an American energy transition now requires such as job training. With low tax rates and capital gains discounts, businessmen instead look for a quick kill on Wall Street or real estate or derivatives or any bubble they can concoct.

      Besides, we’ve probably already outsourced too much to ever learn how to start making things for ourselves again, so we will have to import solar panels and turbine blades from China and continue to weaken our working class.

      • I agree about the regressive taxation issue. Let’s shed the idea that poor people ought to shell out the same amount. This also goes to an important economic framework. Even the carbon tax idea (which I favor in large part) begins to shave away at the portside trucking operations.

        We need a new conceptualization of our society. We need to re-envision our cities and transportation. There is going to be a vision or a catastrophe.

        So far as I can perceive, platitudes about tax credits and atta boy conservation efforts lead to the latter.

  6. Kennedy did not ask congress to figure out how to get to the moon. He put his administration to the task. While I had high hopes for this administration it seems that the consensus organizing approach gets us nowhere.

  7. ref: “the words of John F. Kennedy echoed in my mind” I’m glad you heard such a positive message, Juan. Unfortunately, fwiw I was profoundly disappointed by the President’s speech, which, to my mind revealed that the Obama Administration is now operating as if it were a “hollow government” ~ in much the same way that BP is a “hollow corporation.” I felt as if the administration was not leading but seeking consensus (not unlike in Europe, where governments and enterprises speak of “taking a decision,” rather than “making a decision”). I got no sense of vision, whatsoever, for a 2010~2020 American Decade of focused, shared sacrifice and ultimate renewal. Indeed I actually felt anxious during his rhetorical references to (something like) “I have no answers, solutions, or agenda,” and “am open to all ideas, thus;” as well as “Well, one thing we can all do is pray.” In that regard, I was left feeling that Mr. Obama’s speech was at times as weird as Mr. W.Bush and his apparent faith-based “Triumph of the Will” over reality; and realpolitik as feckless as that of Jimmy Carter.

    _
    BP, it is important to note, is less an oil company than it IS A BANK that finances oil exploration. Deepwater Horizon was, after all an OCS – Outer Continental Shelf (recently opened up by Bush/Cheney) WILDCAT WELL that came in a GUSHER ~ literally blowing itself up in that process. “BP appears to have unleashed one of the 10 most productive wells in the Gulf, industry executives say, “BP screwed up a really big, big find.”

    As the fourth largest corporation on the planet, it is interesting to note that BP is also one of the largest, post-modern HOLLOW CORPORATIONS: “Unlike ExxonMobil, which owns most of the equipment it uses to drill, BP contracts out almost everything. That includes the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig (Transocean). BP shaved $500,000 off its overhead by deploying a BOP – blowout preventer without a remote-control trigger – a fail-safe measure required in many countries but not mandated by MMS, thanks to intense industry lobbying. It opted to use cheap, single-walled piping for the well, and BP installed only six of the 21 cement spacers recommended by its technical contractor, Halliburton. All these equipment substitutions and patchwork of sub-contractors significantly increased the risk of a severe explosion.”

  8. With all due respect, Prof. Cole, I’d say Obama’s call for green energy programs has about as much relative heft to JFK’s call for a moon mission as Ralph Kramden’s “to the moon” promises did. He says it because that’s what he’s told people want to hear. He’s been in office for well over a year and he can’t even get “cap and trade” off the ground, even after having it mostly designed by Big Oil and the other entrenched interests. But he’s going to get this even started? As Ralph would say, “Har dee har har har.”

  9. Yeah, like another commission will take care of things.
    Whether you notice how Industry got the better of Obama on medical insurance reform, or downright spanked him on Too Big To Fail, Obama is eloquently showing us who is really running things. Now, he’s going for the Tre-fecta: Can he come out on top of the tenth largest oil company in the world, under these circumstances, limited by being a foreign company whose national sponsor has told them they’re on their own? Stay tuned for how much ll “legitimate” damages Tony Hayward promised will amount to, or how much this whole business will REALLY change things. Perhaps some window dressing to address appearences until the next news cycle/crisis de jour, but it’ll be a facade.

    As to this particular HJ. Remember how the guy who had this job (doing what he was told;look critically at how differnt Obama really is from The Shrub, objectively), announced in the spirit of JFK how we were going to Mars! Whatever toots your horn, space cadets!

    IMHO, to honestly and accurately presume to anticipate what the future holds, and what we need to do to properly manage it, you have to look at the awkward reality that Obama does not have the power to do much but get us in worse trouble. He or any president. Exhibit A: The Shrub.
    Only when CORPORATE, taking the original meaning of the word, associated with the notion of whole, somehow, decides to do what needs to be done. In other words, once WE ALL come together. Until then, the only entity that has come together is corporate America, who various desparate parts are all driven by The Bottom Line and The Next Quarter; maximizing shareholders wealth in the immediate term.
    These people have a very elegant and powerful system. And until the People of the country are able to come up with a coherent and common set of values, that are something they are willing and able to go to barricades for, these sort of remonstrations will be like gas in the wind. I think we have to realize one thing: the forces you/we are up against, are not just bitchin and moaning on some blog before going off to water their gardens…power, is what they do.

  10. I was not very hopeful going into this round of Obama ‘platitudity.’ It strikes me that we have a string of fellows taking office, after a media intensive campaign, who are more suited (pun intended, if you like) for making speeches and retreating into focus-polled stances on the issues.

    It really is shocking how alike Obama and Bush really are. You mentioned Kennedy, Professor Cole. Kennedy could not have been more different from Eisenhower. I won’t say that these were angels nor even heroes (though in some lights, certainly) as president. They were just inside their own skin, if you will.

    How many of us are prepared to look at President Obama and see a person terribly happy to just take a stand? This seems to be anathema to his persona as a political being. I would, as I suspect the majority of Americans would, love to get behind a movement.

    This is the time when Obama can loose the dogs of patriotism in a just and noble cause (away from Guantanamo and toward the Gulf Coast, sweep aside all naysayers). Are we so jaded in W.D.C. that we cannot commit to even protecting our own shores? I suppose we are having that question answered.

  11. Forgive me, but I was terribly disappointed in the President’s speech. I found only emptiness, no energy policy only a declaration of war as a sort of cover for having no energy policy. I find President Obama ever more disappointing.

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