Tonight’s State of the Union highlighted that energy and environmental issues will continue to play a central role in the Washington agenda over the next year.  From the President’s early reference to workers building fuel efficient cars, to his extensive discussion of next steps on energy and the environment, it is clear that the President continues to tie economic progress to energy and environmental actions.

Our nation’s revamped energy picture – where natural gas production is booming and where domestic oil production is exceeding imports for the first time in two decades – are critical factors in a U.S.-led manufacturing boom.  The President took credit for these results, touting his “All of the Above” energy policy.

Yet that focus on industrial progress and energy production expansion also comes with a continued pledge from the President to do everything within the Administration’s power to address the challenge of climate change.  Indeed, the President laid down a marker on this issue, asserting that “the debate is over” and that, “Climate change is a fact.”

With the White House dubbing its approach a “Year of Action,” the President stressed that he will move forward on his energy and environmental agenda “whenever and wherever” he can, with or without Congressional support.  This has the potential to lead to significant controversy over several of the actions, through enhanced Congressional oversight and fractious public debate.

While some may say that, in reality, the President highlighted few entirely new actions, he made clear that vigorous efforts will continue in certain key areas:

  • the Environmental Protection Agency will continue its signature effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions – referred to by the President as carbon pollution – from power plants, which are the largest source of those emissions, as well as continue its efforts with the Department of Transportation to regulate fuel efficiency for heavy duty trucks;
  • the President pledged to streamline permitting processes for key infrastructure projects, including roads and ports, as well as for new manufacturing facilities.  In doing so, he recognized the critical importance of infrastructure modernization to the Nation’s economic progress;
  • the President highlighted the recently launched negotiating effort to eliminate tariffs on environmental goods and services in the World Trade Organization;
  • the President asked Congress to expand funding for regional innovation hubs, for basic research on innovation, and to support natural gas fueling infrastructure.  This recognition of the potential of natural gas for vehicles may represent a significant policy shift;
  • the President also called on Congress to complete legislative reauthorization efforts for transportation and waterways, raising the expectation that the Administration will assist in shaping this legislation;
  • he again called on Congress to eliminate four billion dollars in fossil fuel subsidies and, without providing much detail or explicitly referencing last year’s proposal for an Energy Trust or innovative financing approaches such as Master Limited Partnerships, called instead for investing in renewables, such as through the nation’s growing solar energy industry.

It is not surprising that the President’s speech did not reiterate each element of his more detailed Climate Action Plan, announced in June.  One should expect, though, that efforts like the Department of Energy’s push on appliance fuel efficiency standards and the Department of Interior’s focus on siting renewable energy infrastructure on public lands will also continue.  Nor is it surprising that the President avoided mentioning highly controversial decisions, like the ongoing Keystone XL Pipeline permit evaluation.

As the details of the President’s State of the Union message emerge, we should expect to see a continued focus on energy and environmental actions that begin to test the outer contours of Executive Branch authority in the absence of further Congressional action.  Whether this will lead to mounting Congressional attempts, particularly in the House of Representatives, to impede these actions or instead to the delineation of some limited areas of agreed-upon progress, should make for a dynamic and interesting year.