Environmentalists worked hard to help Barack Obama win the presidency. Three years later, many of us are disappointed with the administration's environmental record. Although headlines proclaiming that Al Gore "condemned," "blasted" or "slammed" the president in his recent Rolling Stone essay were exaggerated, there's no skirting the administration's failure to take bold action on protecting our communities, rivers, lakes, oceans, wild lands, air and climate.
FOR THE RECORD:
Tar sands: A July 11 Op-Ed on what President Obama can do to reassert his environmental credibility said that the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was "backed" by the Koch brothers. Koch Industries says it has no involvement in the project and has not taken a position on it.
Every now and then, the Obama administration has lived up to its potential, to be sure. The Environmental Protection Agency, which was all but gutted under President George W. Bush, has resumed its mission, with Administrator Lisa Jackson's announcement Thursday that her agency would hold coal plants accountable for smog and soot pollution that drifts downwind across state lines being just the latest example.
Obama's other significant environmental accomplishments include striking a deal with automakers to raise automobile fuel-efficiency standards to an industry average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, reinstating protection for millions of acres of roadless land, safeguarding the Grand Canyon area from future uranium mining and, most significantly, declaring that under the Clean Air Act, greenhouse gases endanger the public health and welfare.
Against that, weigh the administration's failure to help pass a climate and energy bill, its support for expanded offshore drilling (both before and after the worst oil spill in our country's history), opening up public lands to destructive coal mining, failing to properly regulate an out-of-control natural gas industry and stubbornly paying lip service to oxymorons like "clean coal" and "safe nuclear power." The EPA may be moving quickly to reverse the worst environmental crimes of the Bush era, but that's still not good enough given the challenges.
There are fears that Obama may completely set aside environmental concerns to focus on the economy. That would be a mistake. Polls show that Americans (and not just those of us who call ourselves environmentalists) overwhelmingly support clean air, clean water, national parks and renewable energy. At the height of the attacks on the EPA in Congress, for instance, the American Lung Assn. released a bipartisan poll of likely voters that found that three out of four voters supported setting tougher standards on toxic air pollutants, including carbon dioxide.
What's more, Americans understand that building a clean, renewable energy economy can make our nation stronger and create millions of jobs. Obama's message should be that protecting the environment and growing the economy are one and the same, no matter how often big business and the Republican Party say otherwise.
What about those of us who do call ourselves environmentalists? Even in the hostile political environment that pervades Washington, the president still has real opportunities to enact policies that would bolster his record and show us that he shares our concerns. Here are four ways he can show us just how green his presidency really is:
The administration is weighing whether to approve the Koch brothers-backed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring dirty tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, placing the aquifer for most of the Midwest at risk. Allowing this monstrosity to despoil our landscape would be a blow to the environment and to the hopes of the people who helped elect Obama in 2008. If the president firmly says no to this, he'll be well on the way to replenishing his eco cred.
Obama will get another chance to step up this fall, when his administration has the opportunity to strengthen fuel-efficiency and auto pollution standards. This time, we need a standard of at least 60 mpg for vehicles by 2025. By 2030, we would be saving more than a billion barrels of oil annually — far more than the 30 million barrels that the president just released from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Finally, the president should ensure that two important deadlines are met. After a year and a half of delays, the EPA is finalizing a new standard for ozone pollution — smog — that if tough enough would save up to 12,000 lives each year. The agency's latest self-imposed deadline is just a month away. And right now, the EPA is taking comments on proposed new standards for regulating mercury emissions from coal plants. Cleaning up that pollution would prevent up to 17,000 premature deaths annually. The deadline for a final decision is in November.
If the Obama administration follows through on these issues and delivers the clean energy and healthy environmental results that Americans want, the president will consolidate support from a wide range of voters, including environmentalists. That could be the basis for four more years in which to prove he can be the kind of environmental president this country needs.
Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club.