Seventy-nine percent of Americans think President Barack Obama will do a good job protecting the country’s environment, according to the latest Gallup poll on the topic, released on Earth Day. That includes 95 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents and – most surprisingly — 65 percent of Republicans.
At 100 days, what has he done to meet those expectations?
“Green Dream Team”
Obama sent good signals on environmental policy early on, with the appointment of a host of advisers that has been called the “green dream team.” Perhaps the most strident appointee was Carol Browner, the Clinton-era Environmental Protection Agency head, tapped to serve as special advisor on climate and energy to the White House. Browner was seen as a tough regulator at the EPA, and by all accounts would have been more aggressive had the Clinton White House given her more latitude. She’s now charged with coordinating efforts across federal agencies and the administration, a second chance to fulfill her green dreams.
She’s joined by a host of other top-ranking officials with solid green credentials: EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Council for Environmental Quality head Nancy Sutley, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Two key administration figures are also taking the lead on green jobs: Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and green jobs adviser Van Jones.
Within hours of taking office, even before his green team was in place, Obama issued notable environmental directives – calling on the EPA to revisit a request from California and 13 other states to set tougher auto-emissions standards, directing the Department of Transportation to set higher fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks, and pushing for energy and efficiency measures in the economic stimulus package.
So far, his team has taken at least preliminary action to implement all three. Jackson opened a public comment period on the waiver request, which most assume the agency will grant by the end of June. In March, the DOT issued new fuel economy standards for the 2011 model year, boosting the industry-wide standard to 27.3 miles per gallon – an increase of 2 miles per gallon over 2010. DOT estimates this will save 887 million gallons of fuel and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 8.3 million metric tons.
Perhaps the biggest environmental breakthrough was the economic stimulus package, which contained $62.2 billion in direct spending on green initiatives and $20 billion in green tax incentives, including money for renewable energy, efficiency, improved energy transmission, smart-grid technology, low-income housing retrofits, rail transit, and green jobs training.
The next big green moves came in the administration’s first budget, which included an additional $15 billion in investments in energy and efficiency projects, and increased funding for rail – on top of the $8 billion for Amtrak in the stimulus – in order to create a “world-class passenger rail system” across the country.
The budget’s most ambitious green feature was a cap-and-trade plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. Though the Senate rejected the possibility of getting this approved through the budget process, the Obama team’s inclusion of cap-and-trade in the budget showed how serious it is about climate change.
Dude, where’s my carbon?
On Earth Day, Chu, Jackson, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in support of a climate and energy bill from Democratic leadership. In the meantime, however, they’re not hesitating to start acting within the powers they already have.
On April 17, the EPA responded to a 2007 directive from the Supreme Court calling on the agency to determine whether planet-warming greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health and welfare. Unsurprisingly, the EPA found that they do, which kickstarts the process of regulating those emissions under the Clean Air Act. The agency has also started building an inventory of greenhouse-gas emissions from some 13,000 major polluters, an integral first step to reducing them.
EPA is expected to begin issuing regulations to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and power plants by the end of 2009, though that process will almost certainly will result in litigation.
All this increases the pressure on Congress to pass a bill to specifically address carbon dioxide emissions. Nearly everyone, from industry lobbyists to deep-green enviros to the EPA itself, agrees that a new bill would be best. But the Obama administration is not going to wait for one to begin acting, according to Jackson. “The race is clearly on and time is of the essence,” she told reporters last week.
Other highlights of Obama’s first 100 days:
- Announcing plans to regulate coal-ash waste in the wake of last December’s catastrophic spill
- Signaling that they intend to take a closer look at permits for mountain-top removal, the controversial coal-extraction process (though they later made it clear that this should not be interpreted as eliminating the practice)
- Cutting off funding for the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada
- Creating a Clean Energy Service Corps as part of the landmark expansion of AmeriCorps
- Streamlining the loan guarantee program at the Department of Energy, which gave out its first loan to a solar company on March 20
- Planting an organic White House vegetable garden.
Letdowns? There have been a handful. Enviros still aren’t particularly happy with the appointment of corn-hugger Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture. And though they haven’t been too critical of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, most agree that there were better candidates for the job. The sudden resignation of Jon Cannon, a former top EPA lawyer nominated for EPA deputy administrator, was mildly embarrassing.
There’s also some concern that administration officials have been downplaying expectations for getting a climate bill passed in the U.S. by the end of the year, and for reaching a global climate deal in Copenhagen in December – even though climate envoy Todd Stern was given a hero’s welcome at preliminary climate talks in March.
Despite a few disappointments, nearly every action the administration has taken here at home, and the public face they’re showing to the world, indicates that they are quite serious about making comprehensive climate and energy reform a reality within their first year in office. And they’ve got plenty to show for their first 100 days.
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