Or more specifically, that he’ll reference the International Energy Agency’s 2010 announcement that the world hit the peak of conventional oil production in 2006?
Well, a girl can dream.
Since Nixon, only talk
Every US president for the past forty years has bemoaned American dependence on foreign oil. (See this Jon Stewart video for alarming proof.) Yet not one has secured a national energy policy to seriously address it. Those of us in the peak oil community recognize what a vacuum of leadership this represents, and how it signals the tragic flaw in America’s character. How it reveals our shadow; our un-seriousness.
Political analysts say that with the economy and debt the number one topic, and the House now controlled by a newly emboldened GOP, the president “can’t make promises” in his speech. Many expect only poetic and rhetorical flourishes designed to shore up unity in the wake of the Gabby Giffords assassination attempt, and nods to investment as a substitute for “spending.”
This is all well and good. Over promising would sound out of touch, while failing to address the need for a greater sense of national unity would miss the historic moment.
But after half a century of presidential lip-service on the precariousness of our domestic energy situation and our dependence on outside resources it would also miss the historic moment if President Obama failed to lay the cards on the table at long last and just give it to the American public straight: That all things we hope to do now, and all that we hope to do in the future, whether in education, health, infrastructure, economic policy, job creation, foreign policy, geopolitics and anything else, utterly depend on energy.
Energy is the key driver of the economy, and it’s the key physical source of our of lifestyle and future prospects. And, as an utterly nonpartisan resource, it’s the singly irrefutable thing that every American has in common with every other.
And it’s at risk.
In citing the IEA’s 2010 report, President Obama can give himself political cover. In citing the report he can make clear that shale, tar sands and deep water are not light sweet crude. That whatever they offer is not a one-to-one viable economic alternative to the oil we’ve used thus far. With that, he can state definitively that the “end of the era of cheap energy” is here.
And he can put a stop to the cynical attempts to turn this issue a political football by those jockeying for more domestic production. Let them drill where it’s truly viable. Send an essentially worthless policy bone to the deluded. But at the same time he must make clear that domestic production is too little in all areas to make a significant difference in the overall energy situation, and that the US must begin a fundamental and wholesale shift to the next model.
In referencing his executive predecessors, he can demonstrate the long road that has led America to this critical moment. In doing so he’ll instantly diffuse charges of partisanship while bolstering the unity he’s seeking to build.
The good news
Presidents are charged with not only being the ones to hold steady and set a course in crisis. They’re also the ones charged with being the cheerleader-in-chief. The State of the Union offers President Obama an opportunity to inspire Americans toward those better angels of our nature so often referenced, but too little described. The ones that show our resolve and will.
In that light, the only suitable follow-on to declaring a state of emergency is to offer a way forward, and to frame it as an opportunity for growth, innovation, renewal, transformation. To call everyone to the table of action framing growing pains and the rewards of change as an avenue toward a lifestyle renaissance.
President Obama can talk about vigorous efforts toward relocalization that so many Americans have already helped foster. He can call for renewed American manufacturing, and press conservation measures as job opportunities at all levels for those in construction and housing. He can underscore that these jobs can’t be outsourced, adding that money spent in local economies predominantly stays in local economies, strengthening communities. And he can make clear that necessary spending cuts cannot unfairly target clean energy and conservation while rewarding the already too-favored oil, coal and gas industries. He can link distributed clean energy with national security.
The most essential thing he must do is to push clean energy that’s Made in the USA as the next most necessary product and service to spur growth in business, jobs and household consumption. The perfect storm for him and for us is that light and large scale domestic manufacturing addresses myriad problems simultaneously.
Now, I get that clean energy is chump change compared to what oil has done for us. That’s a no-brainer to anyone who understands peak oil.
But you can’t transition until you begin to transition, and a lot of moving parts—lifestyle, energy efficiency, mass transit, walkability, downscaling—all go into the picture. But if you’re going to have some kind of distributed power to counter centralized coal, hydroelectric, nuclear or natural gas, with all their issues and impediments, you’ve must tout clean energy as both product and source to give it the mojo to grow as a market share and a solution. The same with rail.
The code-phrase “we’re dependent on foreign oil” has been said too many times by too many presidents to have any meaning now. Saying we’re dependent on foreign oil also means we’re dependent on oil, period.
What’s necessary in presidential leadership is commitment to a clearer term, and the willingness to finally break peak oil to the American public. To lay out what the “end of the era of cheap, abundant energy” actually means. Only by setting up the problem with clarity and vision can President Obama offer an action plan, a solution and a vision going forward.
If however, President Obama offers more business-as-usual larded on to one-trick-pony CEOs, he will have given up the opportunity to set America on the trajectory of long term viability, not to mention prosperity.
If America goes down for lack of a long-term vision at this critical juncture, we’ll have absolutely no one at all to blame but ourselves and our leadership, who gave us nothing but cheap talk on the biggest underlying issue affecting our nation and the world. The issue on which all others depend.
Energy is to the economy what oxygen is to the human being; it’s so ubiquitous and necessary but yet so invisible that we lose consciousness of its presence and importance. Therefore, when leaders talk about energy, the people need more explanation, they need more dots connected in order to see the real world implications to the “end of cheap energy.” Putting off this problem not only will produce no solutions, it will actively work against us as individual family units, communities and as a successful nation.
One time President Clinton uttered the words “peak oil” publicly, but not in a SOTU.
It now falls to President Obama to be the one to bust the handlers, buck the political pressure, damn the torpedoes and just get it out there already.
He needs to be the breakout president on energy.
Politically speaking, he who starts this conversation will own it. The end of the era of cheap energy is true, real, and now. It is not vague feeling like climate change. It’s on our doorsteps today. We’re now on the plateau before the brutal down slope. Peak oil is a mobilizer, and told well, folks get on board easily.
Life will change with peak oil. Done right, it can change beautifully. Ignored, it will be brutal.
The first utterance might be tough. The fight might be tough. But the evidence is irrefutable.
I hope with a conscious naivete that Obama will be a hero on this. This is the issue on which to prove his true mettle, and the reach of his vision, leadership and will. Like all leadership in crisis, it will prove the measure of the man.
— Lindsay Curren