State of the Union: Lawmakers react to president’s final address, climate and energy vision

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama laid out a long-term vision on climate and energy, highlighting climate change as an urgent challenge. In this E&ETV Special Report, members of Congress react to the president’s statements on energy technology, oil and coal development, and efforts to address climate change. Lawmakers interviewed include Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Reps. Pete Olson (R-Texas), Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), Bob Latta (R-Ohio), John Shimkus (R-Ill.), Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) and Gene Green (D-Texas).

Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to E&ETV’s coverage of President Obama’s final State of the Union address. The president this evening laid out a long-term vision on climate and energy highlighting climate change as an urgent challenge. E&ETV spoke with members of Congress immediately following the speech for their reactions.

Monica Trauzzi: Senator, the president called tonight for a change to the way we do politics. He’d like to see constructive debates. Is that possible on climate change?

Sen. Jeff Merkley: Well, certainly I think that we will take a big stride in that direction. As more of my colleagues across the aisle come to recognize this is the responsibility of our human civilization and our generation to take on the pollution that’s wreaking such havoc on our forests, on our fishing and on our farms.

Monica Trauzzi: Did he talk enough about oil, natural gas?

Sen. Jeff Merkley: Well, certainly he addressed the fact that we are embedded in a fossil fuel system of energy, that we’ve got to pivot to renewable energy, and that we can create a tremendous number of jobs at the same time that we’re doing that. And I think so many would like to create a war between the economy and the environment, and that simply doesn’t exist here. This is a win-win opportunity.

Monica Trauzzi: Congressman, a big focus on climate change tonight. What did you make of the President’s challenge to climate deniers?

Rep. Pete Olson: I laughed. I mean, I’ve said over and over our climate is changing, that’s been a fact since God created the Earth. The problem is right now we don’t know how much man is making that change happen. So let’s take a deep breath and do some studies, and then do some studies about water, because right now all the studies are on land around cities. Let’s diversify, actually see what’s happening to our planet, see what we can control and not control. Again, I am not this, well, let’s just say I disagree with the president’s attack on people who just question his motives, because this is not so much for the world, this is politics.

Monica Trauzzi: Did he miss the mark though by not talking more about oil and natural gas development here in the United States?

Rep. Bob Latta: No. I think what he was trying to do was address the aftermath of 200 nations coming together in Paris and agreeing to an effort to reduce carbon emission, and you do that best with energy efficiency as your fuel of choice, and a growth of renewable energy opportunities, expansion of those opportunities, research that can lead to the linchpin of battery development, the storage opportunity which is important. So I read into that potential that is beyond belief, and that again reaches to blue collar, white collar, you know, four-year, two-year degrees, over to the Ph.D.s. So everyone with apprenticeship programs and training and retraining and higher ed can have an opportunity in our economy.

Monica Trauzzi: The president called for a change to the way we do politics. Do you think a rational constructive debate is possible on climate change?

Rep. John Shimkus: Well, and again, I think that the president brings this up, but he’s had seven years to come to Congress to say, “I’d like to work with you,” but really what the president has done is say “I’m not going to work with you.” The president in one of his other State of the Union’s said, “You know, I’m going to use my phone and my pen, I’m going to bypass you all.” So that’s not the way you have a constructive conversation in this town. It’s really getting to know people and also sitting down and say across the table, “How can we do things?” But I didn’t hear the president say that. It’s pretty much now after all these years, now he’s saying, “Well, now we have to do something,” but it’s pretty much, maybe it’s the way the president wants to have things done and not the way the American people want to have things done, or to have things done where you have to, you can’t get everything you want all the time, you have to sit down with folks to find out what those issues are that you can agree on to go forward on. I didn’t hear that tonight.

Monica Trauzzi: But we are doing those things. I mean, the ban on crude oil exports?

Rep. John Shimkus: Well, there’s no one who’s going to deny the president has a war on coal, and coal miners are losing their jobs, coal-powered power plants are being shut down because of this administration’s attacks on coal and fossil fuels in this country. So we need to get back to making sure that everybody has the opportunity for jobs and economic growth, and that’s our coal miners in our coal fields.

Monica Trauzzi: So what did you make of the president saying that he plans to push to change the way oil and coal resources are managed? Do you think that’ll bolster the workforce in those communities?

Rep. John Shimkus: No, I think it’s a joke. Because where fossil fuels has developed is in the private sector and the private lands. Federal government micromanaging the means of production is ripe for failure and it’s overregulation, it’s just another way to really stop fossil fuel use in this country.

Monica Trauzzi: Congressman, the president tonight called for a change to the way we do politics. Are rational constructive debates on climate change possible?

Rep. Bill Johnson: Well, I don’t know if rational debates on climate change because the president has a very different idea than I and most of the people that I represent and my colleagues do. It’s interesting to me that after seven years of division and partisanship he now wants to call in his eighth year for political unity. I mean, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a president in my lifetime look more small and irrelevant in the face of such global challenges. No, he talks about a robust economy. We’ve got the lowest labor participation rate in our country in decades with almost a third of our citizens either out of work or no longer looking for a job. He talks about a more safe and secure world, and yet he struck a deal with a nuclear Iran that’s moving closer and closer to a nuclear weapon and capturing some of our warriors just today. He talks about how we’re more secure from terrorism when ISIS is on the move and they’re growing throughout the world. He talks about a vibrant economy when the coal industry, many of whom I represent in eastern and southeastern Ohio, are on the ropes with tens of thousands worrying about whether they’re going to keep their jobs.

Monica Trauzzi: Congressman, what did you think of the president’s challenge this evening to climate deniers saying that they are pretty lonely?

Rep. Gene Green: Well, I think there’s still some work to be done. I agree with him that there is an issue with climate change and we need to address it, but I think we can address it with a lot of our current opportunities. Natural gas is a bridge to the future. Nuclear power, expansion of nuclear power. I know he just talked about the wind and solar, and in Texas we have grown substantially with wind. Not as much on solar. But again, we need to make sure that those fossil fuels and the ones that are less carbon emitting are the ones that are that bridge to that future that we may have 15 or 20 years from now. But right now, we need to make sure people can afford to turn on their lights and turn on their air conditioner in the summer or their heating in the winter. The speech was pretty well devoid of energy references except for the wind and the solar. But again, I recognize climate change is something we have to deal with, but I think we need to deal with it with all the cards on the table, in all our opportunities be able to do it, in nuclear where we’ve started expanding a little bit, we need to move more on that. But again, natural gas is the bridge, less carbon emissions, it’s the bridge to the future of that cleaner energy.

Monica Trauzzi: Thank you for watching E&ETV’s special coverage of the State of the Union 2016. We’ll see you back in the studio tomorrow.