How good is Obama on Western environmental issues?
Photo: The White HouseIn the late fall of 2008, the staff of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) gathered at the Airlie Retreat Center in Virginia’s horse country to plot strategies for a new day dawning: Barack Obama had just been elected president, promising fresh progress on issues that had frustrated environmentalists throughout the eight years of George W. Bush. Jeffrey Ruch, PEER’s executive director, didn’t want to waste any time. “The focus of all of our discussions was how to take advantage of the new green Obama administration,” he says. “We were going over all the ground that Clinton had gained, all that had been lost under Bush, and focusing on what could be revived.”
PEER, Ruch says, “acts as a shelter for battered staff — people come to us and say, ‘So-and-so is being persecuted, please intervene and stop it.'” The group also monitors morale within the federal agencies that enforce environmental laws. In the Bush era, PEER defended muzzled biologists and stood up for whistleblowers; the group also helped expose how mid-level managers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rewrote scientific data. Ruch and his cohorts believed the “culture of fear” the U.S. inspector general found inside Bush’s Department of Interior would be replaced by one of transparency and respect for science; they predicted that the Environmental Protection Agency — which, under President Bill Clinton, “affirmatively intervened” when states failed to enforce the Clean Air and Water acts — would once again seize stalled cases from scofflaw states.
“We talked about all the ‘overfile’ petitions we’d give to U.S. EPA to go to the states and say, ‘Hey, what the heck is going on?'” Ruch remembers. “We talked about how long it would take to do that, and made sure everybody had templates to move forward efficiently. We strategized about how to induce the new administration to appoint whistleblowers — to bring back reformers who had been pushed out in the previous administration. We were optimistic, even to the point of enthusiasm.”
About a month later, Obama started making nominations for key posts at the federal agencies. Ruch and his staff envisioned dream teams, including a plain-spoken Westerner, Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, for Interior secretary. PEER was among 106 environmental groups that endorsed Grijalva; they liked his strong stands on issues like mining reform and endangered species protection. And it didn’t seem like a pipedream: Interior secretary usually goes to a Westerner, twice in the last century to an Arizonan. Grijalva had served on the House Natural Resources Committee, and as a Latino, he fit into the new administration’s interest in cabinet diversity. Sources inside Obama’s transition team confirmed that Grijalva was high on the short list.
But on Dec. 17, 2008, Obama announced that he had picked another Westerner instead: the Stetson-wearing descendant of a long line of ranchers, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar.
“When Salazar bounded out in that (debut) press conference wearing his cowboy hat, saying in his statement that ‘my top priority as secretary of the Interior is energy independence’ — he compared it to the Moon shot — I thought, ‘This guy is going to make Gale Norton (Bush’s first Interior secretary) sound like John Muir,'” Ruch says.
Ruch’s take on Western environmental politics, coming from PEER’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, might seem a little hyperbolic. But many Western environmental groups backed Grijalva, too, among them Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Pacific Biodiversity Institute. And several of them took Salazar’s appointment hard. “He was picked because he’d prioritize energy development on public lands,” says Kierán Suckling, the outspoken executive director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. Suckling now sees that moment as a harbinger of failure: “Obama,” he says, “has either declined to lead or led in the wrong direction on virtually every issue that matters.”
Suckling is disappointed that the Obama administration so far has replicated the Bush decisions “on wolves and grizzly bears, on the Sacramento Bay Delta, on sage grouse.” He had high hopes, he says, for Jane Lubchenco, the Oregon marine biologist Obama picked to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but wonders why she ended up telling Congress that breaching the Snake River dams to save salmon was “an option of last resort.”
Worst of all, Suckling says, Obama has failed to articulate a clear policy on greenhouse gases. “He never used the bully pulpit to go out and twist arms and make something happen on climate,” Suckling says. “He never told Congress what to do.”
If the environmental movement is an ecosystem, Ruch and Suckling represent its indicator species: the most sensitive ones, the first to react when their habitat falls out of balance. Other, perhaps heartier, environmental groups’ leaders aren’t quite so disgruntled. Gene Karpinski, for instance, director of the League of Conservation Voters, warmly endorsed Salazar. A few prominent environmentalists in national groups were so worried about disrupting the administration’s careful dealmaking that they declined to speak on the record at all for this story. (Suckling, without naming names, wishes more of them would be willing take the risk, even if it threatens important alliances. “If the environmental movement pushed back harder,” he says, “we could enjoy some benefits of Obama’s waffling — we could at least get him to waffle in our direction.”)
Other environmentalists simply believe Obama’s been handed too tall an order. “They’re dealing with extremely challenging resource management conflicts,” says John Kostyack, vice president of wildlife conservation at the National Wildlife Federation. To sincerely evaluate the administration’s progress on, say, endangered species, “you’d have to look around the country to hundreds of intense negotiations under way over how to reconcile our species conservation goals with pressure from economic development and global warming.”
There was never any serious argument among environmentalists about whether President Bush did enough to protect the environment. But at least Bush retained allies in the oil and gas industry, who enjoyed a rush of new leases and rights under his rule. In contrast, there have been times in the last two years when it has seemed like Obama couldn’t make anybody happy — when several news cycles passed without a single cable news host uttering a good word about him, even if the two sides contradicted each other — one side accusing the president of caving to industry and the other of socialist tyranny.
In a July 2010 report called The War on Western Jobs, 48 Republicans from the Senate and Western Congressional Caucuses, including Rep. Rob Bishop (Utah), and Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), warned that the Obama administration is, among other things, harboring secret plans to designate national monuments, sending high-paying mining jobs overseas, and generally exacerbating the West’s high unemployment rates by threatening to declare coal waste hazardous to human health.
Never mind that Obama’s Office of Management and Budget rewrote the EPA’s coal ash rule to suit the coal and waste management industries, or that Obama and Salazar opened new areas off the coasts to offshore drilling on March 31, 2010 — 20 days before the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The War on Western Jobs still paints him as an environmentalist warrior to rival Clinton, who by executive order converted millions of acres of federal land into more than a dozen new national monuments and protected nearly one-third of the national forest system as “roadless forest,” a brand-new category. Clinton’s own Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, pushed with limited success for mining and grazing reform, and environmentalists liked him as much as ranchers and miners hated him.
Between the extremes of pure environmentalism and the latest iteration of the Sagebrush Rebels, however, there is a story emerging from the Obama administration of systemic progress on environmental issues, some of it arcane and nuanced and much of it at ground level. He has not taken the hard turn toward change that many people hoped for, and the small steps taken may not be enough to halt the rising of the oceans before they erode the California coastline, or stave off precipitation shifts before they kill the West’s ski resorts and ratchet up our water-supply wars. But under the circumstances — a miserable economy, two quagmire wars, a brutal fight over health-care reform in a nearly paralyzed Congress — it may be all anyone could have done. And it may turn out to be the kind of progress that will be harder to reverse in future, inevitably more hostile years.
And so, no, Obama has not led on the more visible issues like climate policy. From the northern spotted owl to the gray wolf, his administration has done no more than Bush’s did to save endangered species. But to act on those kinds of issues this early in his administration would have required a level of combativeness of which Obama — who grew up with a foot in each world wherever he stood — appears to be constitutionally incapable.
Obama didn’t rise to fame because of his gifts for partisan battling. He catapulted into the spotlight at the Democratic convention in 2004, a time when partisan battling had grown so rancorous that many were relieved to have someone — especially an African-American of mixed parentage with a foreign-sounding name — remind us that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” but only “a United States of America.”
And that’s exactly why Suckling never really liked him: “I voted for Hillary,” he admits, “because she is a partisan warrior, and I think that’s the only way to change things.” Obama, he says, “may be our first extremist moderate president.”