The Problem with An All of the Above Energy Policy

A letter to President Obama

President Obama in the Oval Office
President Obama in the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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President Obama has said we need “an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st century that develops every source of American-made energy.” However, a zealous pursuit of an “all of the above strategy” seriously undermines the president’s ability to achieve a far more important goal that he has set: to lead this country and the world toward smart policies that combat climate change.

On one hand, the president has courageously laid out a critical climate action plan to tackle the paramount issue of our times and has made important strides in reducing our carbon pollution. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said in January 2013. His response has laudably included the first carbon standards for power plants, historic clean car standards that save Americans money at the pump, and a plan to reduce other carbon pollution sources. “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” he said. “But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.” We all should support and encourage this leadership by the president and do whatever we can to help achieve those goals.

On the other hand, the president has in many places supported expansion of fossil fuel development and extraction, significantly increasing our carbon pollution. Under his “all of the above policy,” after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf, the president approved a record number of offshore oil rigs – “more working oil and gas rigs than the rest of the world combined,” said the president. He opened public lands to oil and gas drilling, approved offshore drilling in the fragile Arctic, and approved a portion of a pipeline to transport the world’s dirtiest tar sands oil. The United States is on track to equal Saudia Arabia’s oil production at 10 million barrels of oil a day by 2016.

The reality is that “all of the above” is no strategy at all. It doesn’t help us make the critical choices we now face, and it doesn’t guide the pollution reductions that the president agrees we need in order to control climate change and reduce its life disrupting costs — disastrous storms, heat waves, forest fires, rising sea levels, floods and crippling droughts. In addition, “all of the above” leaves the American people holding the bag of drinking water contamination in our communities, crude oil pipeline bursts in our neighborhoods, toxic chemicals in our air, fracking groundwater accidents across the nation, oil spills in our precious Arctic waters and in our seafood-rich Gulf, carcinogenic dumping in our community waters, mountaintop removal across the Appalachians, historic coal ash spills, and more.

The United States cannot be a credible global leader on action to prevent catastrophic and costly climate change while domestically we pursue policies aimed at uncontrolled expansion of fossil fuels development. That’s why, today, Earthjustice joined with 17 other national and international public interest organizations by sending the following letter to the president:

 Dear Mr. President,

We applaud the actions you have taken to reduce economy-wide carbon pollution and your commitment last June “to take bold action to reduce carbon pollution.” and “lead the world in a coordinated assault on climate change.” We look forward to continuing to work with you to achieve these goals.

In that speech, you referenced that in the past you had put forward an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, yet noted that we cannot just drill our way out of our energy and climate challenge. We believe that continued reliance on an “all of the above” energy strategy would be fundamentally at odds with your goal of cutting carbon pollution and would undermine our nation’s capacity to respond to the threat of climate disruption. With record-high atmospheric carbon concentrations and the rising threat of extreme heat, drought, wildfires and super storms, America’s energy policies must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, not simply reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

We understand that the U.S. cannot immediately end its use of fossil fuels and we also appreciate the advantages of being more energy independent. But an “all of the above” approach that places virtually no limits on whether, when, where or how fossil fuels are extracted ignores the impacts of carbon-intense fuels and is wrong for America’s future. America requires an ambitious energy vision that reduces consumption of these fuels in order to meet the scale of the climate crisis.

An “all of the above” strategy is a compromise that future generations can’t afford. It fails to prioritize clean energy and solutions that have already begun to replace fossil fuels, revitalize American industry, and save Americans money. It increases environmental injustice while it locks in the extraction of fossil fuels that will inevitably lead to a catastrophic climate future. It threatens our health, our homes, our most sensitive public lands, our oceans and our most precious wild places. And such a policy accelerates development of fuel sources that can negate the important progress you’ve already made on lowering U.S. carbon pollution, and it undermines U.S. credibility in the international community.

Mr. President, we were very heartened by your commitment that the climate impacts of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would be “absolutely critical” to the decision and that it would be contrary to the “national interest” to approve a project that would “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” We believe that a climate impact lens should be applied to all decisions regarding new fossil fuel development, and urge that a “carbon-reducing-clean-energy” strategy rather than “all-of-the-above” strategy become the operative paradigm for your administration’s energy decisions.

In the coming months your administration will be making key decisions regarding fossil fuel development—including the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking on public lands, and drilling in the Arctic ocean—that will either set us on a path to achieve the clean energy future we all envision or will significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. We urge you to make climate impacts and emission increases critical considerations in each of these decisions.

Mr. President, we applaud you for your commitment to tackle the climate crisis and to build an economy powered by energy that is clean, safe, secure, and sustainable.

The president faces a moment of truth on climate in 2014. He will make decisions about fossil fuel development with enormous consequences for the climate. Either he will lead, answering the call of history and moving our nation away from a future of fossil fuel pollution, or he will dig our pollution hole even deeper by pursuing “all of the above.”

We hope you will join with us in asking the president to bring the policies and decisions governing the development of fossil fuels in line with the leadership he has shown in his climate action plan.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”

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