On the night of his re-election, President Barack Obama described grand ambitions for his second term, including a desire to bequeath to future generations a nation not only free of debt and unencumbered by inequality, but also one “that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
The laws of both physics and politics suggest he’ll have his work cut out for him, and his second-term success will surely be measured on far more concrete terms. The president, after all, faces several lingering and highly divisive decisions, including whether and how to clean up the nation’s aging fleet of coal-fired power plants, which pump vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. He also must decide whether or not to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, which would transport heavy, carbon-intensive oil from the scarred landscape of Alberta, Canada, to ports on the American Gulf Coast.
If past is prologue, Obama is unlikely to make anyone fully satisfied.
While many conservatives spent much of the last four years condemning the president as an environmental zealot bent on sacrificing jobs and economic growth to the altar of green, Obama also took substantial heat from his environmental base. A broad collection of conservation groups and climate activists have argued that the president was walking an equivocal line at best, championing emissions reductions, for example, while also embracing expanded oil and gas drilling, including in the delicate Arctic, and continuing his support for so-called clean coal technology, which many environmentalists consider an oxymoron.
To be sure, the Obama administration introduced several inarguably historic emissions-reduction measures over the course of its first term, including tough new fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and emissions limits on new power plants — both promulgated through the regulatory authority of the Environmental Protection Agency, rather than by act of Congress.
But even after a year of record-breaking heat, Obama embarks on his second term against the backdrop of a Congress that remains stubbornly divided on questions of climate and conservation, leaving little hope these issues will be addressed through broad-based legislation, which the administration has long said was the preferred route for such measures. That will leave the president with a long list of demands and expectations from his environmental base and only the comparatively narrow corridors of his own regulatory authority through which to pursue any of it — should he choose to do so.
Last week, leaders of more than three dozen prominent environmental and conservation organizations issued a letter to Obama, calling on him to use the bully pulpit of his presidency to, among other things, place global warming front and center in the national discourse.
Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman, said the administration has climate change squarely in its sights. “The president has made clear that he believes that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human activity and that we must continue to take steps to confront this threat,” Stevens said, ticking off the accomplishments of Obama’s first term. The administration, he added, “will continue to build on this progress and climate change will be a priority in his second term.”
That assertion – and a number of other environmentally contentious issues – will be closely watched over the next four years. Among the hot spots:
POWER PLANT EMISSIONS
Back in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that if the EPA determined that greenhouse gases were a threat to human health, those emissions must be regulated by the agency under the Clean Air Act. Two years later, the EPA under administrator Lisa Jackson determined just that: carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a public health threat. In the months and years that followed, the agency issued new curbs on emissions from cars and light trucks, as well as from any new power plant.
Those rules outraged the coal-burning industry, which currently has no realistic way to meet the emissions limits. Large-scale carbon capture and control technology is decades from commercialization, despite the roughly $5 billion the Obama administration has invested in developing “clean coal.” The upshot: the rule effectively prevents the building of new coal plants.
In the second Obama term, environmental groups want more. They want to see those rules finalized, and more importantly, they want new rules for existing power plants, which account for roughly 40 percent of the country’s emissions. Just how aggressive the administration will be is an open question, given that it would almost certainly force existing coal plants to shutter. The uncertainty — along with rock-bottom prices for natural gas — is driving many utilities to switch power plants to natural gas, which can fuel the plants within the EPA’s rules.
Acknowledging that any emissions rules on existing plants won’t go down without a pitched legal fight, David Goldston, the director of government affairs with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it “low-hanging, but toxic fruit.” “The administration needs to take this first step,” Goldston said. “The president has repeatedly said he’s interested in attacking the climate problem, and this falls into authority he already has.”
KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE
A decision on the contentious pipeline, which would deliver heavy crude oil from Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast – and then to the global oil market – was abruptly delayed by the Obama administration just as the 2012 presidential campaign was about to kick into full gear. “More study needed” was the reason offered by the State Department, which must make the call because the pipeline crosses an international border, though politics certainly played a key role in the decision to delay.
Republicans in Congress respond angrily to the deferral, going so far as to tie agreement on last year’s payroll tax cut deal to approval of the pipeline, ultimately to no avail.
But a year has now passed, the president has won a second term, and the decision remains a skunk at his re-election garden party. Opinions differ on the real-world impact of the pipeline, both commercially and in terms of global warming, though it’s safe to assume that the project would not deliver a bumper crop of jobs nor lower prices at the pump, as supporters argue. At the same time, not everyone agrees that a completed Keystone XL pipeline would necessarily mean “game over” for the climate, as some opponents of the project have declared – though a study by a Canadian environmental group on Thursday suggests the climate impacts of Keystone may be worse than previously thought.
But whatever its actual effects, the pipeline remains an extremely powerful totem for stakeholders on both sides. It represents to some, rightly or wrongly, Obama’s commitment to American jobs and liberation from the tyranny of Middle East oil, and to others, the president’s willingness to mark a clear end to the era of fossil fuels.
“Reject dirty fuels,” the coalition of environmental groups declared in its letter to Obama last week. “We should not pursue dirty fuels like tar sands when climate science tells us that 80 percent of existing fossil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground.”
Other climate action advocates see the pipeline as a distraction. “It has emerged as a very symbolic flashpoint,” said Elliot Diringer, the executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington and a former policy adviser at the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Bill Clinton. “But I don’t know that we should expend our political capital on symbolic victories rather than real progress.”
As the State Department continues a new environmental review of the project, eyes will inevitably shift to retiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presumed successor, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry. He will nominally inherit Keystone’s federal permit application — though the ultimate decision will be Obama’s.
The administration has already given a nod to TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, to begin building the lower leg of the project, which runs from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast, prompting pitched battles between protesters and local police. But the connection to Alberta’s oil sands — an inarguably dirty deposit of thick bitumen that requires copious, emissions-intensive refining and chemical treatment to turn it into useable product — remains the real test for Obama, a president who has, after all, spent a good deal of effort touting an “all of the above” energy strategy.
Any decision is still likely a good ways off, but it’s certain that large swaths of the electorate will be unhappy with whatever decision the president makes.
THE CLIMATE CONVERSATION
The third and final presidential debate last October marked the first time since the 1980s that an entire season of presidential and vice presidential debates went by with nary a mention of climate change. For environmentalists, and many ordinary Americans, it was a troubling milestone, particularly as a gargantuan super-storm – and one of the sort that virtually all climate scientists have been warning for years would increase in frequency as the planet warmed – bore down on the East Coast and, in the end, caused unprecedented destruction.
“Hurricane Sandy,” wrote Daniel Honan at BigThink.com, “Mother Nature’s revenge on the 2012 election?”
Obama was specifically targeted for his silence, which seemed to take hold during his first term around the time that support for broad climate change legislation — a top-tier campaign goal of candidate Obama in 2008 — was foundering. Green groups were angered by the president’s decision to recede into the background on the climate fight, and to focus on other goals, principally health care and immigration reform.
“I just think it’s irresponsible for our leaders to not address one of the biggest challenges facing our generation,” Phil Radford, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, said at the conclusion of the debates. “It’s one of the biggest security threats we have – it’s a threat to agriculture, it threatens our economy. And to simply not talk about it is one of the biggest failures of our leadership.”
The White House characterized those and similar complaints as unfair. But given recent news that 2012 was hotter on average in the United States than any year on record, and the release on Friday of a congressionally-mandated assessment of climate change suggesting that the impacts of global warming are already being felt, Obama can expect demands for his voice on the matter to increase.
“Leadership matters,” wrote Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program, in a blog post on Monday. “Because the president has to rally public support for the bold steps he must take to address climate change and to make sure those steps aren’t undone by Congress.”
Writing in their letter to the president last week, environmental leaders emphasized this point: “Raise your voice,” they wrote. “Elevate the issue of climate disruption and climate solutions in the public discourse. Connect the dots between carbon pollution and extreme weather, and lead the public discussion of what we need to do as a nation to both prepare for the changes in climate that are no longer avoidable and avoid changes in climate that are unacceptable.”
A host of additional environmental issues will confront the president over the next four years — even as many of his key energy and environmental lieutenants have either announced their departures or are expected to do so soon. These include Lisa Jackson at EPA, Steven Chu at the Energy Department, and Jane Lubchenco at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that he, too, would be stepping down.
Strengthening of the Clean Water Act to protect headwaters and wetlands, meanwhile, is high on many groups’ agendas. Activists will also be watching the EPA as it completes a review of hydraulic fracturing – used by oil and gas companies to exploit deep deposits of hydrocarbons – and its impacts on water sources. Conservation groups have complained that Obama has so far set aside for protection fewer acres of land than any recent president. They want more. Calls for reforming oversight of toxic chemical production and handling — a woefully under-regulated industry, according to activists, are also gathering momentum, as are demands that Obama suspend oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.
That last push comes after a string of embarrassing missteps by Shell Oil, which was granted federal permits to plumb exploratory wells off the coast of Alaska this year, only to founder amid rough seas and an apparent inability to maintain control of its drill ships.
An investigation by the Department of Interior is underway, but the tea leaves suggest that the Obama administration will continue to chart its own course on these issues.
“Developing America’s domestic energy sources is essential for reducing our dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home,” Salazar said last week, “and the administration is fully committed to exploring for potential energy resources in frontier areas such as the Arctic.”