A single action can define a legacy. If President Barack Obama rejects the Keystone XL pipeline in the next few weeks, as appears likely, it will solidify the impression that the administration is fully committed to action on climate change and generally opposed to domestic energy production. While this legacy may charm some on the left, it perpetuates a false choice between abundance and sustainability, sacrificing a unique opportunity to depolarize the energy and climate debate. It also happens to be at odds with the president's actual record on energy policy.
Obama's term has been marked by a profound resurgence in domestic energy production. Since he took office, domestic oil production has risen 75 percent and natural gas production increased by 25 percent. America has gone from being an energy weakling worried about rising dependence to an energy superpower fighting over whether to allow crude oil exports.
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The president's energy production stance has been evident in his support for natural gas production despite progressives' opposition to drilling and fracking. In his 2013 State of the Union Address, Obama asserted, "The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that. And that's why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits." Consistent with this pledge, the Department of Energy has worked to speed up the permitting of liquefied natural gas export facilities enabling increased gas production to serve a global market. While the administration recently strengthened air pollution requirements for future oil and gas wells, it opted not to regulate existing production, which is where the bulk of emissions and compliance costs lie.
The administration is also employing creative statutory interpretations to avoid adding the lesser prairie chicken and sage grouse to the endangered species list – a move that would greatly complicate energy development in the West. Despite the worst environmental accident in U.S. history, the administration worked aggressively to restart offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. And just this month, the Interior Department gave the go-ahead to allow oil exploration in the Arctic.
Of course, the administration has not always been in the oil industry's corner. The president rarely misses a rhetorical opportunity to beat up on "subsidies to big oil." The administration has adopted strict drilling regulations on federal land, and many in the industry believe more aggressive air quality standards will come. Moreover, administration critics rightly point out virtually all the recent increases in energy production have occurred on private lands. However, the administration's decision to stay out of the way was a choice that should not be lightly dismissed.
Some see contradictions in the president's actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while supporting domestic energy production. But far from contradictory, efforts to embrace both the present and the future is the essence of sound energy policy. Those who believe we can accelerate the global transition away from fossil fuels by blocking critical pipeline infrastructure and market opportunities like the export of U.S. oil are simply wrong. It doesn't work.