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President Obama’s Energy and Environmental Legacy

In the Fall 2016 issue of The Current, the quarterly online magazine from the Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment (WCEE), I wrote a retrospective on now-former President Obama’s energy and environmental legacy as compared with his campaign promises. The main conclusion of that article was that Obama was leaving office with mixed results when it came to delivering on his stated goals in the energy and environmental spheres, and that the long-term legacy of those achievements would rest on the action or inaction of his yet-to-be-determined successor. With about a year having passed since publication of that article, and almost eight months for President Trump to have set the course for his energy and environmental agenda, I thought it would be interested to see how some of the initial conclusions have held up and how the new administration has followed up on those specific issues.

A quick note that this article will be slightly more politically based than I intend to take typically in this outlet. The goal of this blog will be to provide more straightforward information and analysis based in data, rather than take a side on any specific partisan debate. I want to give you the information and tools, and you can interpret it however you choose. However because this deals with an article that was already published, I thought it might be worth checking into the facts again after a year.

The makeup of the national energy supply

Obama campaign promise: Clean coal and nuclear power will find a place to stay

Conclusion in initial article: Mixed results— Clean coal remains elusive; nuclear was showing promise under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Power Plan (CPP), which ended up getting stalled until courts could review

Update: Progress has been further stalled— Pushing of clean coal to revitalize the coal industry has long been a part of President Trump’s energy plan. However there has not been appreciable increases in the implementation of clean coal—and the construction of a first-of-its-kind clean coal power plant in Mississippi was indefinitely suspended after falling far behind schedule and beyond budget.

When it comes to the CPP, the Trump administration has moved forward on its campaign promise to roll it back. In March, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt informed states that they are not obligated to meet the deadlines set by the CPP while was still stalled in the judicial system.

The overall result is that the push to increase the portion of the nation’s energy supply made up by clean coal and nuclear power has stalled. The energy-related carbon dioxide intensity of coal has remained steady for years, indicating the proportion of ‘clean coal’ to total coal has not made significant gains. Similarly the below graph shows that the total power generation from nuclear, as well as the percentage of overall American energy generation attributed to nuclear, has remained steady for the last decade.

Based on Short-Term Energy Outlook data from Energy Information Administration (EIA) as of September 6, 2017—annual data for 2017 and 2018 are projections.

Based on Short-Term Energy Outlook data from Energy Information Administration (EIA) as of September 6, 2017—annual data for 2017 and 2018 are projections.

Clean tech investment and job growth

Obama campaign promise: Invest $150 billion over 10 years to deploy clean technologies and create millions of new jobs

Conclusion in initial article: Partially successful— the investment was exceeded by 2014, but the number of jobs created in the space fell well short of millions

Update: Inconclusive—For the entirety of Obama’s second term and since the Trump administration has taken office, the U.S. economy has consistently added jobs every month. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stopped providing data on “green jobs” in 2013. In absence of this monthly data, the best source to track jobs in the clean tech space is the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) U.S. Energy and Employment Report, issued annually in January. As such, it is impossible to know if the new jobs added to the economy are in the clean technologies, though some industry and government leaders have expressed concern that the Trump decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement will negatively impact the prospects for clean tech growth and employment.

Renewable electricity

Obama campaign promise: Increase percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources to 10% by 2012 and 25% by 2025

Conclusion in initial article: Mostly successful— reached 12% by 2012 but plateaued at about 13% through 2015

Update: Progress being made—While the Trump Administration has not focused on policies to specifically encourage renewable energy policies, market forces continue to encourage the penetration of renewable electricity generation. Annual data showed renewable energy generation reaching 15% in 2016 with EIA forecasting that to increase to 17% in 2017 and 16% in 2018.

Based on Short-Term Energy Outlook data from Energy Information Administration (EIA) as of September 6, 2017—annual data for 2017 and 2018 are projections.


Industrial energy efficiency

Obama campaign promise: Promote energy efficiency with industrial manufacturers

Conclusion in initial article: Awaiting results— Obama issued an executive order in 2010 that would achieve $100 billion in energy savings, but the results were to be measured over the following 10 years

Update: Still waiting—Obviously a one year update won’t change the conclusion that these results were still be measured over 10 years, which have not yet passed, so we’ll still await the outcome of this one. While no actions have been taken by President Trump to undue the executive order fulfilling Obama’s campaign promise focusing on national energy efficiency, it is noteworthy that President Trump’s approach to national energy issues has instead been to roll back regulations seen as impeding the development of U.S. energy resources (focusing on oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy).

Government support of oil companies

Obama campaign promise: Eliminate tax breaks to big oil companies

Conclusion in initial article: No progress— Obama’s attempt to eliminate oil tax breaks were rejected by Congress for all of Obama’s proposed budgets

Update: No expected progress– President Trump’s priorities are notably different than Obama’s were, so the status quo of the tax breaks for oil companies are wholly expected to persist, as doing otherwise would not be seen as progress by Trump. On the contrary, there has been speculation of Trump expanding government aid to prop up the coal industry as well. These actions would keep with a worldwide trend according to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund that concluded fossil fuel subsidies, at $5.5 trillion annually, account for 6.5% of the global GDP.

Carbon emissions

Obama campaign promise: Make significant progress to reduce the national carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions

Conclusion in initial article: Jury still out— CPP would reduce CO2 emissions from power plants for the first time, but the Supreme Court placed a hold on the implementation

Update: As noted earlier, one of Obama’s signature energy accomplishments in the CPP is on life support after the Trump administration signaled to states that they would not be held to the emission requirements. However, U.S. CO2 emissions might be another area where the market forces are already in play to affect the outcome regardless of executive action or inaction. The below two graphs from EIA show a forecast continued drop in CO2 emissions per capita and a drastic drop in total CO2 emissions from a peak in 2019 to a minimum in 2033 (before again increasing due to growing population levels). This drop in CO2 emissions in the absence of federal policy comes because of the continuously falling price of less carbon intensive fuels such as natural gas, nuclear, and renewable energy sources compared with coal and petroleum, in addition to individual states and companies pledging to reduce emissions regardless of whether or not the CPP becomes law.

EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook
EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook


Obama was elected after campaigning on addressing climate change and promising federal action to reduce impacts of the energy sector. Upon his imminent departure from office, giving him a grade on fulfilling his campaign promises proved difficult due to some of the long-term nature of potential results as well as the impact his successor could potentially have on furthering or rolling back parts of his agenda. With the benefit of another year to reflect upon, the conclusion of Obama’s legacy as being overall mixed seems even more entrenched due to the contrasting views held by President Trump. While the dominoes of some of his actions (such as federal investment in clean tech and industrial energy efficiency) are still falling, some of his more ambitious attempts (namely the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement) have been thwarted by the Trump administration.

If you’re interested in watching the energy makeup of the United States, the relative carbon emissions, or the overall total energy used across the nation, stay tuned for a primer I’m planning on the EIA’s vast public datasets to show you how you can find that raw data yourself.




About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.