The Obama administration has a particularly strong case to make when it comes to natural gas. Smart developers aren't crying because Obama has put too much gas out of reach -- they're terrified because production is so strong that collapsing prices have crushed their bottom lines. The best way out of this situation is to find new uses for natural gas. Although markets will play a critical role in this endeavor, the most powerful approach is to get government involved. For those who believe in the urgency of fighting climate change, the right step is obvious: Adopt policies that replace coal-fired power with natural gas, which would slash carbon emissions and clean up the air at the same time.
Indeed, the worst political news for the gas industry in the last few years should have been the collapse of a signature Obama initiative: cap and trade. A modest cap-and-trade program would have increased the price of coal relative to that of natural gas and encouraged utilities to switch to the cleaner-burning fuel, just as it has in Europe. The best hope for boosting gas demand going forward is some variation on that theme, be it Clean Air Act rules that favor gas over coal or a clean energy standard that creates preferences for cleaner fuels, including gas. Both are policies that Obama has championed -- and that his adversaries have opposed.
None of this is to suggest that Obama's record on energy is without blemish. His delay last November of the Keystone XL pipeline sent an unfortunate signal to developers and markets that the administration was willing to waver on oil development when politically pressed to the wall. The administration's insistence that developers quickly drill on their leases -- known as "use it or lose it" provisions -- is difficult to square with how development works best. There is also a legitimate debate to be had about whether more federal lands might prudently be opened to energy production. In particular, though the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was good reason to take a fresh look at offshore drilling, Obama should probably have pressed forward with his March 2010 plan to open more waters to production rather than reversed course.
But most of the other criticisms from administration opponents fall flat. The White House, for example, has been called out for railing against oil and gas industry tax subsidies. But with the exception of the "intangible drilling costs" deduction, which can help smaller and more nimble oil and gas companies with their cash flow, these benefits are largely without merit; instead, they simply transfer money from taxpayers to producers' bottom lines. Obama has been attacked for slow-rolling offshore drilling permits in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, but the alternative could have allowed unsafe projects to proceed -- and another spill would have been devastating for the environment and development alike.
While Obama's opponents continue to attack him for his supposedly anti-development policies, one group seems to have figured him out. When TransCanada announced on Feb. 27 that it would go ahead with a segment of the Keystone XL pipeline and the White House embraced it, the response from a leading environmental organization was far from supportive: "Splitting the project means double the trouble," the Natural Resources Defense Council declared, en route to savaging those who would disagree. When the president spoke up in favor of a smart approach to oil and gas in late February, Joe Romm, a prominent climate blogger at the Center for American Progress, responded with a biting headline: "'All of the Above': Obama Names His Failed Presidency."
The attacks from the right and the left must make for a lonely White House -- and that should make those people who genuinely desire prudent energy development worried. Instead of attacking Obama for sins not committed or fixating on the handful of places where they differ from him, they should lend support to the president's surprisingly constructive policies. Both the hands-off alternative that his opponents advocate and the (at best) ambivalent approach that many of his erstwhile allies prefer could be far worse.