President Algae or President Climate Chaos?

Obama fails to please in the anti-environmental USAMichael Smith in the US 


“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet”, Romney joshed at the recent Republican Convention, amid mocking laughter. “My promise is to help you and your family”. The joke was so good he repeated it a few days later in Ohio. In fact Obama said in his victory speech that “the American people”, would look back at that moment as the time “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. That distinction scarcely helps the case for Obama since the rise has not in fact slowed, or come close to it.


Obama started off well by appointing what Mitt Romney calls his “gas hike trio” of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson. Although it is important to remember that most environmental and planning decisions in the US are taken at a State not a federal level, we have seen enough to know that his and their record has been poor in many areas. Nevertheless there have been substantial achievements: —

• the US is projecting reductions of 28% now over what it predicted in 2007, for greenhouse-gas emissions in 2030 – due to recession and fracking. Emissions in 2020 are targetted to be down 17% on 2005 levels.

• a temporary moratorium on deep-water drilling after the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last spring.

• the long-delayed roll-out of regulations on mercury pollution and auto fuel efficiency standards, negotiated on the back of the auto sector’s bailout goodwill. The President made an agreement with auto manufacturers to improve the overall fuel economy of the nation’s passenger auto fleet to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 – nearly twice the 27.5 miles per gallon standard that was in place when he assumed office.

• the rejection of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone pipeline. The State Department said that it was ordering a review of alternate routes to avoid the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, where groundwater is shallow and there are sensitive wetlands, which would have been put at risk by a rupture of the 1,700-mile pipeline carrying a heavy form of crude extracted from oil sands.

• the stimulus package the administration helped assemble in early 2009 contained enough spending on green projects to constitute the biggest clean energy bill in US history.

• in 2010, 8.21 percent of all energy consumed in America came from renewable energy – i.e. not fossil fuels and not nuclear. That’s up from 5.37 percent in 2001.

• construction of 16 commercial-scale solar facilities, five wind, and eight geothermal projects on public lands that are expected to power about 1.3 million homes and support 12,500 jobs.

• a 10-year goal to develop and deploy cost-effective clean coal technology, and to instigate several commercial demonstration projects within four years. The Recovery Act invested substantially in carbon capture and sequestration research, including 22 projects across four different areas of carbon capture-and-storage research and development.

• Creation of the America’s Great Outdoors initiative to develop a community-led conservation and recreation agenda for the 21st century.


But there is more bad than good in the President’s record:

• in effect President Obama is committed to putting in place an “all-of-the-above strategy” to develop every available source of American energy. That may sound like a balanced approach, what you’d expect of reasonable President Obama. It may sound like a balanced approach – to the witless, but it will result in runaway climate change.

• the Keystone pipeline decision was not clear-cut. The administration is now pledging to fast-track a smaller segment of the pipeline to bring oil from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast, to environmentalists’ dismay.

• Obama has said he remains committed to a politically balanced diet of increased domestic oil and gas production – combined with incentives for the development of carbon-free alternatives. His website boasts American oil production is at an eight-year high.

• promotion of more oil and gas drilling in part because of high fuel prices and recent approval to Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

• a guarded endorsement of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, even as the EPA and Interior Department are pursuing several new regulations on the controversial drilling practice to extract natural gas and oil from shale rock.

• the embrace of nuclear energy as part of a so-called clean-energy standard.


The Keystone move is the latest in a series of administration decisions delaying anti-environmental matters until after November’s presidential election to try to avoid the heat from opposing interests — business lobbies or environmental and health advocates — and to find a political middle ground: —

• delay of a review of the nation’s smog standard until 2013

• delay of offshore oil lease sales in the Arctic until at least 2015

• blocking of new regulations for coal ash from power plants.

• indefinite delay of a cut in mercury and arsenic from industrial boilers, despite being an overwhelming benefit for public health, potentially preventing upwards of 4,800 premature deaths a year.

• Obama just delayed an ozone rule (possibly illegally) despite multiple scientific assessments recommending the same lower standard. The rule would have cut smog levels and prevented hundreds of premature deaths, heart attacks, and missed school days every year. But Obama’s chief of staff considered it would help in swing states.


As to climate change, Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address acknowledged that a divided Congress would not agree to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. But he told the assembled members of the House of Representatives and Senate to “at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation”. In a recent interview, Obama told the Rolling Stone that climate change was set to play an important role in his reelection campaign:

“Frankly, I’m deeply concerned that internationally, we have not made as much progress as we need to make. Within the constraints of this Congress, we’ve tried to do a whole range of things… but there is no doubt that we have a lot more work to do.

Part of the challenge over these past three years has been that people’s number-one priority is finding a job and paying the mortgage and dealing with high gas prices. In that environment, it’s been easy for the other side to pour millions of dollars into a campaign to debunk climate-change science. I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way. That there’s a way to do it that is entirely compatible with strong economic growth and job creation – that taking steps, for example, to retrofit buildings all across America with existing technologies will reduce our power usage by 15 or 20 percent”.

Obama failed to persuade a Democratic Congress to pass promised legislation limiting carbon emissions. He abandoned the legislative effort entirely after Republicans gained control of the House in the 2010 elections. But the Supreme Court’s Massachusetts v. EPA decision, cleared the way for regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. By bringing greenhouse gases under the rubric of the Clean Air Act, it folded carbon pollution into existing legislation rather than requiring that new, and presumably controversial, special legislation be enacted. Regulations on CO2 proceed unless Congress intervenes to stop them. The Clean Air Act is not the ideal policy tool for the task, but it’s a path forward when there don’t seem to be many others.

Indeed it seems to have cleared the way for Obama to move forward on Greenhouse gases without approval from Congress. But nothing. Obama has not done much of his famous proselytising to educate the public about the need for climate action or to lobby Congress to make it happen.

Meanwhile 2010 was deemed the hottest year on record. Record-breaking drought wracked Texas and Oklahoma. March was the hottest ever recorded. And people are increasingly connecting each of those events with climate change, while the President, whose long-standing rhetoric shows he understands the gravity of the problem, wheedles, self-justifies and does nothing.

Republicans are worse of course. They have largely moved towards anti-environmental stances since the days of Reagan who removed Jimmy Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof and even blamed trees for pollution. All Republican presidential candidates were climate-change deniers and though he is not actually against energy conservation or renewable energy, Mitt Romney’s energy plan does not mention energy conservation or efficiency, or climate change or global warming.. House Republicans recently used their majority to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List, terminated an ocean fisheries conservation program and reversed an action by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to identify millions of acres for potential wilderness designation. Newt Gingrich calls Obama “President Algae” for supporting research on biofuels.

In a 2008 TV ad, Gingrich said the US “must take action to address climate change.” Now he says the ad was “probably the dumbest thing I’ve done in recent years”. Of course that is saying something. He would replace the “job killing” EPA with an “Environmental Solutions Agency,” using incentives to work with local government and industry and seek “loser pays” laws: in environmental lawsuits losers automatically pay all legal costs. “This is a very anti-fossil fuels administration. The left wing environmental movement hates oil”, Gingrich said recently in Alabama.

But Gingrich is not even the most extreme: failed presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Obama’s environmental views constitute a “phony theology” that prioritises the earth over people. And Romney has chided Obama for his interest in renewable energy. “You can’t drive a car with a windmill on it,” the former Massachusetts governor told a campaign audience in Ohio in August.

“This administration has expanded drilling in the Arctic, has delayed protections from smog, and at the same time done more for clean energy and to cut oil consumption than any administration ever,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, the biggest US environmental NGO. “By our view, that’s a combination of wins and losses, or advances and retreats, that shows a pragmatic and moderate record”. In a world where the next generation will remember us as reckless climate destroyers, this seems too kind.