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Obama's Energy Speech: What He Said, and What He Didn't

President Obama got the expected applause when he said during his energy speech Wednesday at Georgetown University that he would order federal agencies to buy 100 percent alternative fuel vehicles by 2015. And why not? It was a good line, politically astute, and executive orders don't need a Congressional vote.

Obama's energy speech was about the art of the possible, what he can hope to achieve in the face of a hostile House and limited budgetary options. A lot was left unsaid, and some of that was more interesting than the actual speech.

So here's a guide to what Obama said, and what he didn't say:

  • Obama said: "So last year, we established a groundbreaking national fuel efficiency standard for cars and trucks. We did this last year without legislation. We just got all the parties together and we got them to agree -- automakers, autoworkers, environmental groups, industry.... And this fall, we'll announce the next round of fuel standards for cars that builds on what we've already done."
  • What he didn't say: That agreement, led by the EPA, was indeed groundbreaking, but it was also before the election. Today, that same coalition of the willing is fracturing, as environmentalists push for a 60 mpg standard by 2025 and automakers -- sensing a wind shift -- balk. The carmakers haven't yet signed on to Congressman Fred Upton's bill to take away the EPA authority in setting fuel economy standards, but they're increasingly restive, especially about 60 mpg. Ratcheting up the standards for the 2017-2025 years will be an uphill battle.
  • Obama said: "The fleet of cars and trucks we use in the federal government is one of the largest in the country.... And that's why we've already doubled the number of alternative vehicles in the federal fleet. And that's why today I am directing agencies to purchase 100 percent alternative fuel, hybrid, or electric vehicles by 2015. All of them should be alternative fuel." (Applause.)
  • What he didn't say: Obama will be a lame duck second-term President in 2015, if he's lucky, and nobody's going to remember what he said or didn't say about the federal fleet. In fact, President Clinton issued an ambitious executive order in 2000 that was supposed to increase fleet fuel economy 20 percent by 2005, but it had many exemptions and loopholes and didn't go anywhere. The General Services Administration, which buys U.S. fleet vehicles, reported only 0.3 percent hybrid penetration by the fall of 2010. Obama's doing more than most with the federal fleet, but there's a lot of inertia there.
  • Obama said: "Soon after I took office, I set a goal of having one million electric vehicles on our roads by 2015. We've created incentives for American companies to develop these vehicles, and for Americans who want them to buy them."
  • What he didn't say: The incentives to create U.S. battery plants were a good idea, but they had the double duty of jump-starting innovation and helping economically ailing states, including Michigan and Indiana. Some of that money could have been better targeted. And the one million EVs by 2015 goal will be difficult. The Department of Energy drew up a roadmap for how it intends to get there, but a lot of the numbers were speculative. The 120,000 annual Chevy Volts by 2012 cited in the DOE accounting was from a media report not confirmed by GM.
Obama's speech wasn't terrible, and it contained a lot of energy truths, including the fact that we can't drill our way to oil independence. But it also didn't contain many new proposals that will get us to his ambitious goal of cutting America's foreign oil dependence by a third over the next decade.

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Photo: Jim Motavalli
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