Measuring Obama’s Environmental Record

Measuring Obama’s Environmental Record

David Jenkins Spring 2010

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV), recently released its Presidential Report Card, giving President Obama a B+ on his first year in office. Ironically, that is the same grade Obama gives himself. The prominent national environmental group bases the score primarily on the president’s efforts related to climate change, which is the environmental community’s top priority.

Does Obama really deserve such a high mark for efforts to safeguard the environment and address climate change? The B+ grade is quite generous given that efforts to pass climate legislation have suffered a series of setbacks largely as a result of Obama’s strategic missteps and his failure to fully engage on the issue.

It was the lack of legislative progress here in the U.S. that helped to ensure that no binding climate treaty would be reached at the international climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark in December. Indeed, after President Obama joined the 193-nation meeting in a last-ditch effort to salvage a modicum of progress, the “meaningful agreement” reached proved to be fairly meaningless. Instead of a treaty mandating greenhouse gas limits, which climate watchdogs have been working towards for years, the meeting produced only a non-binding accord with no firm limits on emissions.

The accord reached in Copenhagen is not much different than the “Bali Roadmap” negotiated by the Bush administration in 2007, which was crafted to set the stage for significant future progress. Yet while the Bush administration was roundly criticized for not going far enough in Bali, most national environmental groups stifled their disappointment at Copenhagen and showered President Obama with praise for his effort to save the summit – as if the vague, non-binding “Copenhagen Accord” that he negotiated could be defined as a successful outcome.

Alternatively, the blame for the summit’s failure to live up to expectations was primarily directed at the U.S. Senate, for not passing a climate bill before the summit convened. While it is true that Senate inaction on climate change undermined U.S. leverage at Copenhagen, Obama shares significant culpability for the lack of legislative progress — a culpability that the environmental community has glossed over.

Partisan Approach

President Obama’s first big mistake was allowing the climate change issue to become more partisan than it needed to be. He could have easily struck an early partnership with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) or other climate-friendly Republicans and pressed House lawmakers to introduce a bill that had bi-partisan support.

Instead, Obama left the task of crafting climate legislation to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA), Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming – two of the more liberal and partisan politicians in Congress. They drafted their American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) with little if any Republican input and then focused their efforts on horse-trading for votes among fellow Democrats. By the time the bill came to a vote, Waxman and Markey were handing out free emission allowances like candy on Halloween.

The partisan effort provided a target-rich environment for Republican leaders, many of whom are skeptical about the need to address climate change. They gained the upper hand on messaging, dubbing the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade component, a “cap-and-tax.” The label engrained itself deeper when the Obama administration included $645.7 billion in revenue assumptions in its budget from the anticipated auctioning of emission allowances under a cap-and-trade bill and even more so when some Democrat leaders suggested that the revenue could be used to pay for health care reform. It wasn’t long before the bill’s supporters were on the defensive.

The White House was slow to react to the attacks on cap-and-trade and then failed to effectively counter them. The president missed an opportunity to argue that cap-and-trade is actually a Republican approach to pollution reduction and that it was advocated by President George H.W. Bush nearly two decades ago as a way to control emissions that cause acid rain.

President Obama’s lack of both climate leadership and bipartisan engagement not only resulted in a flawed bill that narrowly passed the House along party lines, but it alienated many climate-friendly Republicans and further polarized the climate debate.

Unhealthy Sacrifice

Another big mistake was Obama’s decision to place health care reform at the top of his agenda, ahead of energy and climate legislation. With a climate bill already passed by the House, the Copenhagen summit looming, and many Americans concerned about excessive government spending, it is difficult to understand why Obama chose to pursue costly heath care reform legislation last summer before securing Senate action on an energy and climate bill.

Notwithstanding the rosy long-term projections regarding its impact on the deficit, health care reform carries a price tag of somewhere between $800 million and $1 trillion. The prospect of such spending, coming on the heels of record government bailouts and an $850 billion stimulus package, created a public backlash that has bogged down Congress and pushed Senate consideration of a climate bill into 2010 – an election year – or beyond.

Bipartisan energy and climate legislation, by contrast, would entail no such sticker shock. All viable proposals to cap and price greenhouse gas emissions would either generate revenue or be revenue-neutral. Moreover, polling consistently shows widespread public support for tackling our energy and climate challenges – and a belief that doing so will create jobs and lessen U.S. dependence on unreliable or even hostile energy-exporting countries.

Obama’s decision to move health care ahead of energy and climate was a very consequential strategic blunder and the single biggest setback for the prospect of passing energy and climate legislation. If it were not for a bipartisan effort by Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), prospects for passing a climate bill in 2010 would be non-existent.

Credit Earned

To Obama’s credit, his administration has taken some important steps to address the nation’s energy and climate challenges.

Perhaps his greatest accomplishment in this regard is the deal he struck with automakers to raise automobile fuel efficiency standards to an industry average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.

The deal marked the most significant government action to improve automobile fuel efficiency since 1975, when President Ford signed legislation establishing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo.

Using unprecedented government leverage created by bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler, the subsequent bankruptcy and government buyout of General Motors, and the threat of states setting their own standards, Obama ended decades of auto industry resistance to stronger fuel efficiency requirements.

While the deal irked some of the libertarian-minded hosts that populate talk radio, conservative FOX News commentator Bill O’Reilly praised the action. Improving the gas mileage of automobiles and light trucks enjoys overwhelming public support as Americans are justifiably concerned about their overdependence on foreign oil. They understand that better fuel efficiency means less money spent at the gas station and fewer dollars lining the coffers of rogue regimes and the terrorist malefactors they support.

Obama’s deal will not only improve the environment, it will strengthen America’s energy security and reduce the flow of U.S. dollars to the Middle East. It will also make U.S.-based automakers more competitive regardless of gas prices.

Another positive sign was the bipartisan tone that Obama struck in this year’s State of the Union Address when he spoke about energy and climate. He called for a comprehensive energy and climate bill that includes incentives for nuclear energy, additional offshore oil and gas drilling, and incentives for clean coal technologies.

It was a rare sight to see both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Vice President Joe Biden standing behind the president smiling and enthusiastically clapping when he spoke of building a “new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants” and “opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.”

Obama’s statements were intended to signal support for the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman effort to craft a bipartisan (technically tripartisan) energy and climate bill that combines nuclear incentives and new offshore drilling with measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Overall, the environmental community supports the compromise effort because they understand it is the only way a climate bill will pass in the Senate.

Beyond Climate

While most major environmental groups have not acknowledged President Obama’s missteps on climate and are inclined to grant him the benefit of the doubt on most matters, he is taking heat from regional and issue-specific organizations on a variety of subjects.

One such issue is mountaintop removal (MTR) mining. During the presidential campaign Senator McCain pledged to end the destructive and unnecessary practice of blowing off the tops of mountains to access coal seams. Obama did not quite match McCain’s pledge, but implied that he would like to see the practice end.

Advocates opposed to the practice were disappointed last June when instead of ending the practice, the Obama administration announced a new interagency plan to regulate MTR coal mining. Since then, the random granting or rejecting of MTR mining permits has left people on both sides of the issue perplexed.

Obama also disappointed wildlife advocates when he removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list in some states. As a result, Idaho moved quickly to implement an aggressive hunting season that seeks to kill 220 wolves.

Ocean advocates are upset with the President for issuing a rule that removes limits on the Hawaii-based longline swordfish fishing fleet and allows the incidental catch of nearly three times as many threatened loggerhead sea turtles as was previously permitted.

Forest advocates raised questions about the White House’s confusing approach to national forest planning policies, while wildlife conservationists scorned its retention of a rule narrowing the Endangered Species Act’s scope with regard to polar bear protection.

The unpredictability of the Obama administration’s environmental decisions could easily lead one to conclude that political considerations are the driving force of its environmental policy – more so than environmental convictions or scientific facts.

Making the Grade

Accurately grading a president on any issue requires a firm and honest understanding of what past presidents have been able to accomplish.

Three Republican presidents provide a good benchmark.

Theodore Roosevelt put an end to an era of waste and natural resource abuse, reacquainted Americans with responsible environmental stewardship, and made unprecedented strides in the conservation of America’s lands, waters, and wildlife.

In his first term, Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed two landmark environmental bills into law, the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. In 1973, he also signed the Endangered Species Act into law.

Ronald Reagan, not often recognized for environmental accomplishments, pushed through the most successful environmental treaty in history – the Montreal Protocol. That international treaty protected earth’s atmosphere by beginning a phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals. It has also prevented the equivalent of 135 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions since 1990.

By those standards, President Obama’s B+ from LCV seems a lot like his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize – an award based primarily on expectations rather than accomplishments.

David Jenkins is vice president for government and political affairs at Republicans for Environmental Protection (