Sunday, February 08, 2009

President Obama's Environmental Agenda

Energy, environment and economy are inextricably linked in reality and ultimately must be dealt with comprehensively in the policy arena. The team of writers who cover science and the environment for the New York Times provide their take on the environmental challenges and opportunities facing the President Barack Obama Administration and touch on their how they may impact the President's approach to policies dealing with energy and the economy. (GW)

Environmental Views, Past and Present

By John W. Broder, Andrew C. Revkin, Felicity Barringer and Cornelia Dean

New York Times

February 7, 2009

WASHINGTON — In his first weeks in office, President Obama has dismantled many environmental policies set by the Bush administration. But in some areas, he will be building on the work of his predecessor, rather than taking it apart.

Mr. Bush was not known for his concern over the environment. In the eight years of his tenure, he opened vast tracts of public lands to drilling, mining and timbering, earning the enmity of many environmentalists. His critics accused him of easing restrictions on polluters, subverting science and dragging his feet on global warming.

But even those who view his environmental record most harshly acknowledge that he also took significant action. He improved air quality, gave renewable energy a large financial boost, left behind the largest marine sanctuaries ever established and started a dialogue that could help lead to the next international treaty on climate change.

So far, Mr. Obama has devoted most of his attention to reversing Mr. Bush on a variety of issues. Within days of taking office, he froze a series of last-minute actions by the departing Bush team and ordered regulators to write tough new rules on automobile emissions and fuel economy.

Earlier this week, he upended Bush administration policies on drilling in Utah and the operation of coal-fired power plants. But as Mr. Obama moves further, a bigger challenge may be to decide how much to preserve of the broad landscape left to him by Mr. Bush — environmental and energy policies that encompass land, air, water, wildlife and climate.



The Legacy of Kyoto

The public view of Mr. Bush’s record on global warming was largely set by his blunt rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, his swift abandonment of his campaign pledge to restrict some greenhouse gases and the disclosures of interference by presidential appointees with government climate scientists.

But now, with many adherents of the Kyoto climate pact struggling to meet its targets, some climate policy experts say that, in efforts to draw up a new treaty, Mr. Bush may have left useful groundwork behind.

Particularly useful were meetings late in Mr. Bush’s tenure that brought together a group of rich and poor nations responsible for 80 percent of the human output of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide.

The idea was to devise partnerships within sectors like transportation and steel-making that could curb gas releases without the complexity of negotiating among nearly 200 countries in the climate-treaty talks.

Eileen Claussen, the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said the meetings helped frame some steps China could take that might satisfy senators worried about jobs flowing to Asia under a flawed climate deal.

Measurable action by China is vital if Mr. Obama is to gain Senate approval for any climate treaty resulting from international talks culminating in December in Copenhagen. China has so far resisted mandatory limits on emissions and is building new coal-fired power plants at a rapid pace.

Over all, Ms. Claussen said, Mr. Bush’s climate legacy is mainly one of delay and lost opportunities.

Through most of his presidency, Mr. Bush largely framed his approach to global warming around two talking points: the uncertainties in forecasts of a dangerously human-heated world and the certainty that economic harm would come from mandatory cuts in emissions of heat-trapping gases.

A result was a series of mainly voluntary climate and energy initiatives intended to slow the release of such gases, with no commitment to binding reductions at home or abroad.

Mr. Obama has taken precisely the opposite tack. He spoke late last month of the specter of “violent conflict, terrible storms, shrinking coastlines” and other perils from unchecked warming, while pressing his vision of prosperity rebuilt around clean cars and pollution-free power from the wind and sun.

Many analysts say that Mr. Obama must navigate among an array of campaigners, lobbyists and lawmakers with particular interests — from dependency on coal to aversion to power lines or nuclear plants. But if he makes too many political compromises, he may find that his plan fails on environmental grounds.

“That is why he must educate a public grappling with uncertain science and a grinding recession that work on long-term energy and climate security cannot be deferred until better times,” said Kimberly Thompson, who teaches risk management at Harvard.

Aides to Mr. Bush who dealt with the environment and energy insist that they left plenty for Mr. Obama to build on, including greatly increased financing for nonpolluting energy sources and a 30 percent increase in energy-efficiency standards for government buildings.

James L. Connaughton, the former chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, blamed environmentalists, as well as Congress, for some of the lack of progress on new energy options.

Congress failed to provide adequate financing for new power lines to distribute electricity from alternative energy sources, Mr. Connaughton said. And many environmental groups, he added, spoke of concerns about global warming but never dropped their opposition to nuclear power, a carbon-free source of electricity.



New Direction on Pollution

The Bush administration’s signature efforts to control air pollution revolved around the tiniest and deadliest of pollutants: the fine particles linked to death from pulmonary and cardiac disease. Mr. Bush’s actions achieved marked improvement in air quality but fell short of what scientists, and in some cases the courts, demanded. This leaves the Obama administration two options for reducing the number of people exposed to unhealthy amounts of fine particles or other pollutants.

It can step up the enforcement of existing law — the administration signaled earlier this week that it would forcefully pursue power plants that skimp on required pollution controls — or it can focus on reviewing and revising policy. Or both.

Another sign of the new direction came Friday when the Environmental Protection Agency accepted a judicial demand to regulate mercury emissions from power plants. Power-plant regulation will be central to any new policy.

Bush administration officials say regulation of diesel engines and other pollution rules prolonged thousands of lives. “America is going to have the most consequential set of clean-air requirements, on a generational scale,” said Mr. Connaughton, the former environmental quality chairman.

Michael Wara, a Stanford law professor and an expert on the Clean Air Act, agreed that the Bush administration “did some good.” But, Mr. Wara added, it was “ the least amount that they could, given the scientific realities.”

A two-front strategy emerged. Diesel-engine pollution was attacked aggressively through controls on engines and new mandates for the fuel itself, to cheers from environmentalists. Power-plant controls, however, became the source of increasing hostility, and eventually lawsuits, between environmentalists and the Bush administration.

It was not that the Bush administration took no action. Its diesel controls and its 2005 rule intended to cut major power-plant pollutants 70 percent through the Eastern United States, in principle, did as much to reduce pollution and improve health as all but three previous rules in American history.

But other accommodations letting old, heavily polluting coal-fired plants expand rather than shut down infuriated environmental groups. They came to believe that the 2005 power-plant rule that did make significant pollution cuts served another purpose: to forestall any additional cleanup requirements as long as Mr. Bush was in office.

That implicit imperative seemed evident in fall 2006 when the environmental agency ignored its scientists and refused to tighten the national standard for chronic exposure to ultrafine particles, passing up the chance to avoid what scientists said would be thousands of premature deaths.

Environmental groups took to the courts. The administration’s legal defeats piled up. The biggest blow came in July when federal judges threw out the 2005 power-plant rule, challenged this time by some in the industry.

The Obama administration must now decide what can be salvaged and forge a new approach to enforcing the Clean Air Act.



A Change in Tone

When Mr. Bush designated as national monuments almost 400,000 square miles of ocean, reefs, atolls, seamounts and surrounding waters, Elliott Nourse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, called his action “statesmanlike.”

The monuments, set aside in 2006 and 2008, are home to thousands of species of rare plants, birds and fish. But perhaps their most important characteristic is that they contain few exploitable resources and just about nobody lives there, so there were no major political or commercial objections.

“Part of the calculus for us was to do something really important that needed to be done that would hurt the fewest number of people,” Dr. Nourse said.

Mr. Obama will face water-related issues that are far more complex, contentious and costly, in terms of money and political capital.

He will confront disputes over water rights, especially in the West; estuary preservation and coastal erosion; and a host of issues relating to oceans, including limits on fishing, offshore wind power and the country’s place in international marine regulation.

Shortages of fresh water, which already plague California and the Southwest, are expected to worsen as the climate warms, forcing new consideration of the equity of water distribution programs, some of which were negotiated a century ago in what is now believed to have been an unusual wet spell.

Offshore issues are focusing new attention on the lack of regulations for the use of federal waters. Perhaps the knottiest issue for Mr. Obama personally is the Cape Wind proposal for an enormous wind power installation off the south coast of Cape Cod, Mass.

Though he has not spoken about this plan, Mr. Obama has been an enthusiastic backer of wind power. But Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, an early political ally of the new president, opposes the plan.

As Arctic sea ice recedes, signatories to the Law of the Sea, a United Nations convention, are considering new rules for shipping, fishing and oil exploration there. They are also mulling expanding territorial claims to undersea continental shelves, an issue of potentially great importance to the United States. Mr. Bush supported the treaty, as did the Pentagon, but he never persuaded enough fellow Republicans to agree.

Steve Murawski, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said he was heartened to hear Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton support the treaty in her confirmation hearing. And he said he was glad Mr. Obama designated “a practicing marine biologist,” Jane Lubchenco, to run the administration. “I think the tone will change significantly,” Dr. Murawski said.



The Balance Shifts

No single agency was caught up in more scandals in the Bush administration than the Department of Interior. The deputy director was convicted of lying about his ties to the fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff; another top official resigned after she was accused of running roughshod over agency scientists in endangered-species decisions; and a group of bureaucrats were found to have taken gifts from and engaged in sex and drug use with mining company officials they were supposed to be regulating.

But it was the department’s management of public lands that received the most criticism from environmentalists. The department manages 500 million acres of public land, a fifth of the nation’s surface area, and is responsible for oil and gas leasing, mineral development, forest management and fish and wildlife programs on all of those lands and offshore waters.

The Bush administration, spurred by Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force, set out to explore those lands and waters for resources and to roll back some of President Bill Clinton’s environmental actions — in particular, the rule, adopted in his final year in office, making nearly 60 million acres of national forest off limits to logging and other commercial uses.

The Bush administration’s effort to reopen most of that forest land, opposed in the courts and in Congress, ultimately failed, although it continued right up until Mr. Bush left office.

The administration moved to open to potential oil and gas drilling 2.6 million acres of federal land near Desolation Canyon in Utah that Mr. Clinton’s interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, had designated as potential wilderness. It also sought to ease oil exploration in areas prized by conservationists, including Vermillion Basin in Colorado, the Jack Morrow Hills in Wyoming, Otero Mesa in New Mexico and 100 miles of the Rocky Mountain Front in northern Montana.

Acting on the Cheney task force’s recommendations, the Interior Department issued 6,000 new drilling permits in 2003-4, a single-year record.

“The push for energy went out as a mandate that overruled every other consideration, both offshore and on land,” Mr. Babbitt said. “It overrode the Endangered Species Act and virtually every other environmental consideration.”

Yet the potential damage was limited by economic and political realities.

In 2004, just before the presidential election, Mr. Bush announced he was shelving plans for drilling in many of those sensitive areas. And leases on tens of thousands of federal acres remain unclaimed because the oil and gas cannot be economically recovered.

Ken Salazar, the new interior secretary, said his first priority would be to restore the department’s political and scientific integrity. And while Mr. Salazar said that the law allowed “responsible” extraction of oil, gas and minerals from public lands, the balance had to shift back to preservation.

He said he was reviewing the Bush administration’s leasing policies, as well as decisions involving endangered species and rules on disposal of waste from coal mines.

“We are putting together an inventory of all of those actions,” Mr. Salazar said. “Some we will reverse, some we will change and some we may keep.”


Post a Comment

<< Home