“This year, I am eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate,” he said.
But Obama made it clear that he supported a “bipartisan” effort which would incorporate energy policies that are popular among Republicans – and fiercely opposed by the liberal wing of his own party.
“That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies,” Obama said.
The endorsement for nuclear power and especially offshore drilling will be difficult for some Democratic voters to swallow.
Most of the instant reaction to the speech from environmental groups was positive – though few commented directly on Obama’s support for nuclear power or drilling.
However, the Centre for Biological Diversity was scathing. “A clean energy economy does not include continued reliance on dirty coal and further risky drilling for oil in fragile offshore areas,” the centre’s director, Kieran Suckling said in a statement.
“The president failed tonight, as he failed over the past twelve months, to use his bully pulpit to advocate a bright line goal for greenhouse gas reductions. “
Obama’s endorsement of a nuclear renaissance – 30 years since the last new nuclear plant – was calculated to help the efforts of Democratic Senator John Kerry and Republican Lindsey Graham craft a compromise bill that could get broad support in the Senate.
The house narrowly passed a climate change bill last June, but the effort has bogged down in the Senate.
The two Senators told reporters earlier Wednesday that they were closely focused on pulling in Republican support, and damping down fears among Democratic senators from oil, coal and heavy manufacturing states that energy reform would hurt local economies.
Obama hewed closely to the same strategy, peppering his speech with references to new “clean energy” jobs and the “profitable kind of energy”. He uttered the words “climate change” precisely once, referring to America assuming a leadership role in the negotiations to get a global deal to halt warming.
But the president did voice support for a “comprehensive” Senate bill – code in Washington for a broad set of proposals that would also include establishment of a cap and trade programme.
The nod for a “comprehensive” bill could help head off attempts to get the Senate to scale back its ambitions, and pass a narrowly focused energy bill that would not attempt to establish a carbon market.
And he said he wanted a bill through the Senate in 2010 – timing that is seen as crucial both for the prospects of energy reform in America and for getting a global change deal.
Obama also took a shot at climate change deniers, which brought some mutterings from Republicans.
“I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change,” he said. “But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future.”