Obama’s Four-Year Energy, Environmental Record Seen as a Mixed Bag
Last week, fellow Green & Clean writer David Sims reported on Mitt Romney’s energy white paper, which focused on a goal of American energy independence by 2020.
Romney’s paper proposes speeding up permitting processes for oil wells and solar projects by giving states greater energy regulatory power, and encourages the private sector to lead the way in energy innovation. As well, if the Republican presidential candidate were elected, there would be very little in the way of government subsidies in a hypothetical Romney administration.
So this week, with the presidential election just six weeks away, here is a synopsis at President Barack Obama’s energy and environmental policy and record over the last four years — on issues like energy independence, solar and wind power development, oil drilling and other topics key to understanding Obama’s positions. What would an Obama reelection victory in November mean for the next four years, and what are his plans going forward?
First, let’s take a look at some of the accomplishments of the Obama administration.
Gas production: Under Obama, domestic gas production has increased every year since 2008, and the U.S. is now importing 2.6 million fewer barrels of oil and petroleum products than it did four years ago. Of course, Obama is also famous (or infamous) for refusing to sign off on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, taking into consideration the environmental concerns of the massive project spanning Canada and the U.S. Obama did approve fast-tracking a segment of the Keystone pipeline, however.
Clean energy: Electricity generation from renewable sources is on track to double by the end of 2012. The Obama administration has invested in more than 15,000 clean energy projects across the country, supporting nearly 225,000 jobs.
Obama has proposed that by 2035 the U.S. generate 80 percent of its electricity from an array of clean energy sources. Over a third of new electricity generation added since 2008 has been wind power, and last year the U.S. produced more than twice as much solar power as it did in 2008.
Carbon pollution: The Obama administration has developed historic new fuel efficiency standards — standards that will nearly double the average fuel economy of cars and light trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 6 billion metric tons. Obama has also proposed the first-ever carbon pollution standards for new coal- and oil-fired power plants.
He has also set a carbon pollution reduction target for the federal government, aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions of federal agencies by 28 percent by 2020.
Air pollution: This is an issue that sadly does not get as much attention as other environmental concerns, except when people talk about the Clean Air Act and possible changes to it (Romney has said he’d like to overhaul the Clean Air Act and remove carbon dioxide from the list of pollutants.)
Under Obama, air pollution has gone under the radar, but his administration established the first-ever national limits for mercury and toxic air pollution (the proposal was finalized last December). This could prevent 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 cases of asthma each year.
Additionally, the administration established a “good neighbor” rule to cut soot and smog-forming pollution that travels across state lines; this rule was designed to hold polluters accountable to communities downwind. The White House estimates that this will prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths and 1.8 million missed school and work days per year.
Public land conservation: In 2009 Obama signed one of the largest expansions of wilderness protections in a generation, setting aside more than 2 million acres as protected wilderness, protecting the conservation of more than 1,000 rivers and 26 million acres of historically significant landscapes and adding thousands of miles of trails.
Additionally, the White House has invested in restoration projects in Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the Everglades. These restorations are projected to support 3,200 jobs and pour $427 million into local economies through tourism and outdoor recreation.
Now clearly along with those accomplishments during Obama’s term, there have been disappointments. Obama has failed to persuade a Congress led by Democrats to pass limits on carbon emissions that he promised — an issue near and dear to the hearts of environmentalists.
He also took heavy criticism last September for shelving a plan to toughen health standards on smog, which went against expectations. It was a plan that would have forced states and cities nationwide to reduce air pollution or face federal penalties.
Then there is the issue of climate change. While Obama and much of the free world are confident in asserting that global warming is man-made and not a hoax as some believe, he has not delivered on a stated legislative promise that he made in 2008 of passing a cap-and-trade bill. And, honestly, in the past two years, cap and trade, fiercely opposed by congressional Republicans, has been on the back burner. We didn’t hear a word about cap and trade at the Democratic National Convention.
Obama did, however, enact new greenhouse gas rules for power plants last March that require new power plants to limit carbon dioxide emissions to 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour. It will put pressure on new coal-burning power plants.
With four Obama years in the books, what are environmental groups’ assessments of the job the president has done? Their reactions are all over the map, though there are some groups that are effusive in their praise.
“The President has been the greenest president we’ve ever had,” said Navin Nayak, the League of Conservation Voters‘ senior vice president for campaigns. “In the context of comparing it to past (presidential) records, it’s not even close.”
The Sierra Club’s climate and energy representative, John Coequyt, also praised Obama.
“We failed to pass a cap-and-trade bill, and he clearly bears some responsibility for that, but he clearly wanted it passed,” Coequyt said. “He was not the reason it didn’t pass.”
Other environmental experts are not as rosy on Obama’s accomplishments or lack thereof. Phil Radford, director of Greenpeace USA, said last year that Obama’s record on the environment and energy has been “lackluster.”
“He took office promising to lead the fight against global warming, yet stood silently by as polluters and their lobbyists took over the legislative process,” Radford said. “Without the president’s leadership, we ended up with a disastrously compromised climate bill in the House, and efforts died in the Senate.”
And Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, has said, “Obama’s overall record on energy and the environment deserves an F.
“Fundamentally he let die our best chance to preserve a livable climate and restore U.S. leadership in clean energy — without a serious fight,” Romm said.
Clearly, there are always going to be differences among the environmental community as to whether government leaders have done enough. It remains to be seen whether Obama will get a second term to continue his environmental goals or Romney and his drastically different positions on energy and environmental issues will be the new law of the land next January.