Analysis: Obama’s Second Term — Enviro Breakthrough or Train Wreck?

January 15, 2013

Feature

By PETER DYKSTRA

Helping environmental journalists sort through the convergence of money, politics, ideology and nature

When Ronald Reagan took office 32 years ago, he brought along a scandal-prone EPA boss and an Interior secretary who made conservation policy based on the Great Flood and the prospect of an imminent Rapture. But even this president, whose reign arguably marked the beginning of our eco-ideological divide, pointed out what was obvious to so many: “Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it's common sense.”

Among the questions facing Obama is the future of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which has drawn protests like this one in Washington, D.C., in November 2011. Photo: Emma Cassidy via Flickr.

For the most part, Congress agreed. In the 1980 scorecard of the League of Conservation Voters, House Democrats averaged a 54 percent voting score, Republicans 37 percent. From the conservationists’ standpoint a Republican leader was Georgia freshman Rep, Newt Gingrich, who got a 50 percent approval rating. A democratic laggard was Tennessee second-termer Al Gore, at 35 percent.

That was then, this is now. In 2011, Democratic reps scored 91 percent on LCV’s pro-environment scale, Republicans 11 percent. Since the 2008 financial crisis, public support for environmental measures has tanked.

At the dawn of a second Obama term, the environment is merely one of a stable full of issues facing an ideological chasm. With dozens of issues, from habitat to health, climate to clean water, and energy to economy in the balance, what are the prospects for closing that divide?

Enviro issues to watch in 2013

Which brings us to 2012. A dizzying parade of disasters — from heat to crippling drought to floods, tornadoes and Superstorm Sandy, to the startlingly vanishing Arctic Ice Cap — have once again inspired hints of a public opinion turnaround. A Yale/George Mason University poll taken before Sandy set Americans’ acceptance of man-made climate change at 58 percent — back to about the same level as 2008.

So where does that leave us in 2013? Here’s a quick snapshot, taken a month after the election at our deadline, of a few pivotal issues, political dramas and people for environmental journalists to keep watch on:

No ‘Climate Cliff’ Defections: Grover Norquist, the conservative activist whose “no-tax” pledge was considered inviolable before the election, saw dozens of defections or potential defections in the theatrical approach to the Fiscal Cliff. There’s no such exodus among climate skeptics. To date, no self-declared Congressional climate skeptic has wavered. And no advocate of climate action has seized on the issue. In early December, another global climate confab, this one in Doha, Qatar, came and went. But this time, the usual post-meeting declarations of defeat and despair were issued before the meeting began.

Three weeks after the election, President Obama gave what many consider a nearly portent to second-term policy when he exempted U.S. airlines from a European Union carbon-trading scheme. An even bigger clue will be the president’s course on the Keystone XL pipeline. With construction — and protests — already under way at our deadline near the pipeline’s terminus in East Texas, construction through the north central U.S.still awaits Obama’s yes or no. “This is about the president and his legacy,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.

Energy & the ‘War on Coal’: There’s more on wind and solar a bit later here, but for now, let’s assume “energy” means “fracking” for the next several years. In the fiscal blink of an eye, coal has dropped from being the source of roughly 50 percent of the nation’s electrical power to 36 percent. Demagogues blame the War on Coal, which, based on the Obama Administration’s largely benign treatment of vote-sensitive Coal Country, may or may not exist.

Statisticians and economists blame natural gas, which has eaten King Coal’s lunch in the free market. With natgas prices plummeting and ancient, highly polluting coal plants being phased out, the coal industry is shrinking here while looking for export markets to save itself. The success of natural gas is due to the brilliant marriage of “fracking” technology to shrewd politics and good timing. America is reborn as the Saudi Arabia of gas, with tens of thousands of new wells cracking shale to liberate eons’ worth of stored energy.

That industry is enjoying a Rockefeller-like bonanza, while the answers to an endless stream of concerns about land swindles, water use, contaminated wells, greenhouse emissions and waste products remain largely hidden behind a curtain of political power and decade-old exemptions from environmental regulations, gifted the fracking industry by the infamous energy policy work of Vice President Cheney.

Anti-Regulatory Zeal: Don’t expect the battle over regulation to end any time soon. With Congressional critics assailing EPA and other regulatory bodies as “job-killers,” the agency could be under the gun as both parties seek budget cuts.

State agencies may be in even worse straits. From food and water safety to pollution discharges to waste cleanup, states are losing boots on the ground due to spending restraints. Typical of the austerity push is the Commonwealth of Virginia, where Governor Bob McDonnell ordered across-the-board four percent budget cuts in state agencies. Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality had already been under criticism for its inability to keep up with inspections of large-scale hog and poultry farms as well as heavy industry. In states where practices like fracking are dramatically expanding while enforcement capacity lags behind, it could prove a regulatory Wild West.

Eric Schaeffer heads the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington nonprofit he founded after a stormy departure from EPA in 2002. He sees the anti-regulatory effort as a real risk to environmental protection, but he thinks it may have peaked in 2012. “We may be past the perfect storm,” he said. “It’s by no means over, but it certainly won’t get any worse.”

Political Cash Flows Freely: A few years back, oil firms like Chevron and BP spent healthy sums of money touting their investments in renewable energy via TV ads. Now, those healthy sums have multiplied, but the renewable energy message is on mute. It’s difficult to get through a single commercial break in news programming without seeing ads from oil, coal or natural gas interests. Fossil fuel ads with a job-creating theme overwhelmed clean energy ads by a four-to-one margin in the recent campaign (see more here). With coal on the ropes and oil and gas booming, none have any great motive in slowing their public opinion push.

While there may be a Supreme Court challenge to the 2010 Citizens United ruling which unleashed large scale political spending in the name of free speech, no one really expects that spending to decrease. In early December, GOP fund raisers reportedly made an early call to Sheldon Adelson, the casino and convention tycoon who famously lost $150 million betting on unsuccessful 2012 candidates, to check Mr. Adelson’s intentions for 2016 donations. “There was unprecedented money spent on the corporate side,” said Karpinski, “and they didn’t win. It’s time to move forward.”

Photo: © Roger Archibald.

The cash may not flow so quickly toward clean energy. After a $536 million federal loan was lost to the bankruptcy of California’s Solyndra Corp., government support for wind and solar faced a mortal threat. Cheap solar panel imports from China –— the same thing which actually doomed Solyndra –— will make the industry’s U.S. recovery less certain. Thanks to an effort to elevate Solyndra to the scandal-equivalent of a gold record by opponents of non-fossil energy, Solyndra briefly became the Peter Frampton of scandals: Awesome sales on an oft-repeated one-hit song. For the record, federal subsidies over the years for environmentally-contentious ethanol production are worth almost 40 Solyndras, federal oil and gas subsidies are worth eight Solyndras a year, and federal clean coal research to date has been 5.6 Solyndras.

As more people draw the link between climate change and disruptive weather, the cash outlay for droughts, fires and storms like Sandy could weigh heavily on policy and public opinion. Former EPA chief and two-term New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman doesn’t see a climate turnaround as immediate, but she does think it’s inevitable. Sandy’s toll in her state alone is at least $40 billion. “People are starting to wake up and say ‘What’s going on here?’” she said. “Much as I would like to think people would do it because it’s the smart thing to do, economics will always be a deciding factor.”

Stalemate in Public Opinion: Has a single sweaty, stormy, droughty, melty year been enough of a game changer to break the stalemate in Washington? Did it shake loose some media interest? We shall see. An early clue would be Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s jarring post-Sandy cover citing global warming. Another would be the announcement that the Hollywood dream team of producer Jerry Weintraub, director James Cameron, former governor/ex-alien cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and Alec Baldwin are teaming up for a climate documentary series to air on the Showtime network later this year. These two may be heralds of a groundswell of public, political and media interest in the environment. Or not. Lacking that surge of interest, Schaeffer is not hopeful of a second-term Barack Obama engaging more deeply on environment.

“I don’t think the Obama Administration has any stomach for environmental issues,” Schaeffer said. “They view (environmental) decisions as costing more politically than they’ll gain. They treat all of this like they’re swallowing castor oil.”

Schaeffer concedes that much of the current turmoil may be out of the Obama team’s control, though. “They inherited broken regulatory machinery from the Bush Administration just as the economy went south, then the House of Representatives flipped.”

Is the ideological chasm over environmental issues leaving the country a house divided? Photo: © Roger Archibald.

Who’s at the Helm?: History is not on the side of Obama cabinet officials Lisa Jackson, Ken Salazar or Stephen Chu staying at their respective posts for another four years. Jackson’s departure, for instance, was announced just before our press time on Dec. 27. Since the Reagan administration,only two EPA, Interior or Energy Department bosses have lasted for an entire two-term presidency, Clinton’s Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and EPA chief Carol Browner. It seems the lure of less grief and more pay in the private sector tends to shorten the tenure of the highest-ranking energy and environment officials.

One major player in the Congressional ideological wars is changing roles, as uber-climate denier Jim Inhofe has given up his seat as ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Taking the Oklahoman’s place is another oil-and-gas state senator, Louisiana’s David Vitter. While Inhofe has steadfastly described climate change as a “hoax,” Vitter might be better described as a climate skeptic.

In the House, Republican Lamar Smith is taking the reins of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, replacing fellow Texan Ralph Hall. Both men are on record as doubting widely accepted climate science. Environmental journalists take note: Smith founded and chairs something called the House Media Fairness Caucus, dedicated to stamping out objectionable reporting on a wide variety of issues. In 2009, Smith bestowed his “Lap Dog Award” on the news divisions of NBC, CBS and ABC for “liberal bias” in their reporting on climate science.

Only time will tell if the new chairman values fairness in science.

Peter Dykstra is a former SEJ board member and is publisher of Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2012-13. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.