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Whatever the overall merits of President Obama's speech last night, it made one thing clear: the President has lost his way on natural gas.

Obama — in declaring his goal to foster the creation of 600,000 natural gas jobs by the end of his second term — effectively hammered the last nail in the coffin of the pretense that natural gas (i.e. shale gas) is a “bridge” to a clean energy economy. 

In so declaring, he made clear what has been increasingly apparent to those who closely follow the issue: shale gas is intended as a permanent replacement for other fossil fuels, not a temporary “bridge” until renewables get up to speed.

To understand why this is so, a bit of context:

The United States has never had a coherent national energy policy — ever since the first oil crisis under the Nixon administration made clear that we needed one.  Why not?  Because

  • It is painfully obvious that any sensible policy demands the declaration of renewables as the future of U.S. energy, including a roadmap to get there.  That roadmap would very likely include policy changes to use the power of government to actively discourage the use of fossil fuels and actively encourage the use and development of renewables.
  • Collectively, the fossil fuel industry — the richest and most politically powerful industry in the U.S. and perhaps the world — doesn't want that roadmap to happen.

In other words, the politically entrenched oil and coal industries have prevented it.  And note that I say “oil and coal industries” because until very very recently, natural gas has been a (relatively) politically weak sibling in the fossil fuel fraternity.

So given that context, the President's remarks are damning and revealing because they make clear that — rather than build a self-sustaining renewable energy economy — he is willing to make the natural gas industry politically powerful… to dig a new political power “trench” for the natural gas industry.  A trench from which they will in turn be able to obstruct attempts to foster a truly clean energy economy, just as big oil and big coal did.

Leave aside the issue that it would be very difficult — in the next four years — for the President to make good on his 2011 pledge to only support shale gas (fracking) if it could be done environmentally responsibly.

Right now President Obama has a choice: he can invest policy effort and national treasure in the promise of a clean energy economy — a promise whose value is clear to China, Germany, and the rest of the world — or he can invest those resources in another fossil fuel industry (shale gas) that will continue the fight to prevent a truly clean energy economy based on renewables.  He can't have both.  And I fear that he has made his choice.