August 24, 2009
While the President has been bogged down for the last couple months in an increasingly histrionic health-care debate—which has devolved so far into ridiculousness that one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry—environmental decisions, mostly from the President's appointees have still been coming fast and furious. However, while the administration started out pouring sunshine on the environment (after years of obfuscated drudgery under the Bush administration), they soon began to move away from truly progressive decisions on the environment and into the recognizable territory of playing it safe—and sometimes even stupid.
Logging in the Tongass National Forest
Since taking power this January, the Obama administration has made very few decisions that are completely illogical—one might even say simply stupid—but a recent decision by the new Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, to allow the clear-cutting of 381 acres of primary rainforest in Alaska falls under this heading.
It’s as though Vilsack has not come up to date both on Obama's pledge for green jobs—which clear-cutting isn’t—and on the direct link between deforestation and climate change. Everything about this decision goes directly against Obama’s speeches and pledges to date.
The argument for proceeding with chopping down this part of the Tongass is jobs. But cutting 381 acres, which is not a large plot, is only going to create very temporary work. Why not instead hire people in reforestation projects? Certainly, there was enough money in the stimulus to cover such a ‘green job’ scheme.
Furthermore, although the decision doesn’t technically contradict the Roadless Rule (which the Obama administration just reinstated) since this particular area of Tongrass was an exemption, it certainly undermines it making environmentalists fear that the Roadless Rule means little more than good publicity to the new administration.
The decision is made even more ridiculous when contrasted with a recent speech where Vilsack laid out his vision for America's forest land (this after he approved the clear-cutting in Tongass). Here is a sample of Vilsack’s speech: "A healthy and prosperous America relies on the health of our natural resources, and particularly our forests. America's forests supply communities with clean and abundant water, shelter wildlife, and help us mitigate and adapt to climate change. Forests help generate rural wealth through recreation and tourism, through the creation of green jobs, and through the production of wood products and energy. And they are a national treasure – requiring all of us to protect and preserve them for future generations."
The speech is very nice—he also talks at length about the importance of restoration—but it is also hypocritical. Vilsack’s current actions go against everything he said. One could at least say for the Bush administration that their hostility to the environment was evident: they never tried to sugarcoat their disdain for regulation or conservation.
Despite opposition from a multitude of corners, despite the complete destruction of mountain peaks (that’s not something you hear too often), despite the damage to watersheds and rivers, and despite the continued contribution coal is playing in speeding up climate change, the Obama administration continues to approve mountaintop removal mining for coal.
The administration has even started to give the go ahead for new mines without a public announcement; I suppose they hope the media will miss it (and they usually do).
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved a major mountaintop removal site (one of six) at CONSOL Energy Inc.'s Peg Fork Surface Mine near Chattaroy, West Virginia, despite saying in May that it opposed all of the six proposed major mines since they threatened nearby rivers with contamination. No one knows exactly what deal was made between the EPA and CONSOL, since the copies of permit documents regarding the new mine have not yet been made public.
In March Lisa Jackson, administrator of the EPA, announced that the Obama administration would be tougher on mountaintop mining. Two months later she cleared dozens of valley fill permits where the mining waster from the mountaintop is dumped.
Then a court struck down the Obama administration's attempt to overrule a law—put in by the Bush administration—that made it easier to dump contaminated waste from mountaintop mining near streams. The court's decision leaves the Obama administration at a bit of an impasse—or maybe just a long delay—of how to better regulate mountaintop mining.
At this point, the administration seems loathe to even consider looking at outlawing the practice altogether.
Wolves and other Endangered Species
How the administration has dealt with wolves is a good example of how it has turned toward 'playing it safe' decision-making. In March 2008, the Bush administration took the wolf off the Endangered Species Act (ESA), allowing the species to be hunted. Wyoming began the hunt immediately and within five months killed off a quarter of its wolf population. It was then that a judge overturned the Bush ruling that wolf populations were not yet strong enough to withstand such hunting.
The decision fell next to Obama's Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who decided to remove wolves from the ESA in Montana and Idaho, but keep them protected in Wyoming, citing the state’s lack of a plan to manage the wolf population sustainably.
While there are reports in both Idaho and Montana of increasing trouble between wolves and humans, it is unlikely that the small populations in these states (1,600 wolves in the entire Rocky Mountain region) can really withstand annual hunting, especially when states are putting out quotes from 15-25 percent of the total population for just the first season. I applaud Salazar for stating that his decision was not based on politics, but on science, yet it is clear that the hunting quota are simply unsustainable.
Certainly, a balance needs to be struck with wolf populations near human communities, but large-scale hunting is hardly the way to go. What would have been more progressive would be to allow each state's DNR greater levity to deal with problem wolves, while keeping the ban on hunting for the time being.
Of course, wolves are just one of hundreds—or more likely thousands—of endangered species in the United States. The Obama administration started out swinging when it overthrew a Bush administration decision that would have gutted vital aspects of the Endangered Species Act, but since then it has moved forward slowly on protecting species.
Just yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that twenty-nine species will go on to be considered for protection under the ESA. So, while they are not covered yet, they have made it to the next round. Yet at the same time, it was announced that nine species were dropped from consideration, such as the Ashy Storm-petrel, a sea bird off the West Coast which has already been classified by the IUCN as Endangered. To add to the frustration, in February the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned down protections for a staggering 169 species.
While just considering protecting species under the ESA is a big change from the prior administration, which diluted and ignored the ESA whenever it could, species reviews are backed up and environmentalists are saying they are already unhappy with Ken Salazar's decision-making regarding endangered species. Even if all 29 species now being considered become protected that's only a little more than 7 percent of the original species proposed.
The world is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis—and maybe even a mass extinction—and the United States is no exception. If the world's wealthiest, most powerful nation chooses not to save its dwindling biodiversity what hope is there elsewhere?
Cleaning up Superfund sites
Obama's EPA has announced that over the next two years it will begin clean up less Superfund sites—the nation’s most contaminated places—than any administration since 1991, including the Bush administration (which was consistently criticized for doing too little on Superfunds).
The EPA will only finalize clean up on 42 sites in the next two years. The Bush administration, however, cleaned up on average 38 sites a year. In total 527 sites remain that requirement cleaning-up.
The EPA states that its reasoning behind the decision is simply lack of funds to clean-up these sites. What Obama has done, however, is call for a reinstatement of a tax on large petroleum and chemical companies to pay for more clean-ups: something the Bush administration was opposed to. Instead Bush allowed the source of money for cleaning Superfund sites to dry up, without establishing any way to pay for future clean-ups.
So, if the tax goes through, it may mean that Obama will begin more work on Superfunds. But if doesn't, what then?
President Obama's support of ethanol was a bad idea to begin with and only worsens as time goes on, since corn-based ethanol has proven a social and environmental disaster.
Ethanol was supposed to have saved the world, but that turned out to be a pipe dream: instead the use of large stocks of corn and other crops for fuel (not food) has played an important role in raising food prices, which caused a food crisis that hit developing nations worldwide. And despite less attention on the issue the crisis is hardly over: currently one billion people in the world are estimated to be going hungry. The fact that people starved—in part due to the rush to turn food into fuel—is a moral outrage.
In addition, ethanol has proven to be anything but environmentally-friendly. In Brazil large-scale farming operations for ethanol have taken over arable land, pushing cattle ranchers and subsistence farmers deeper into the Amazon, leading to rampant deforestation. In addition with less food being produced in the United States’ breadbasket, Brazil picked up some of the slack, also at the expense of the Amazon rainforest and climate. Whenever biofuels cause direct—or indirect—deforestation they end up contributing drastically to climate change, rather than mitigating it.
Despite all this, the President continues to stand behind ethanol, bowing to political pressure from lobbyists with powerful agricultural companies and representatives from the Midwest who want subsidies on ethanol, even though science has proven it is inefficient, environmentally destructive, and bad for people and climate change.
The President began his term stating that he will "restore science to its rightful place": he has yet to do this when it comes to ethanol.
The big test for Obama and the environment is yet to come: it will be in December when the world gathers to form a new global treaty on climate change. Make no mistake: all eyes will be on the United States. Obama has promised change on this issue, and countries big and small, rich and poor, powerful and marginalized, will watch to see how the administration conducts itself at this meeting.
A climate change bill, the first ever in this country, has passed United States’ House of Representatives. However, it is a weakened bill, so weakened that some people have actually called for democrats to vote against it. But most environmentalists want to see the bill passed, for if nothing else its passage proves to the world that the United States is finally beginning to take climate change seriously—well over a decade late.
Where I fault Obama is his general reticence to talk about climate change. Now granted, it's not as though the media ever asks him about it. Nor, is it large on Americans' mind (though it's large on the minds' of many other people around the world). But these facts are even more reason for Obama to address the issue, to put it out there with all the seriousness it deserves.
Perhaps, he's wary of the backlash from the large community of 'global-warming deniers'. A backlash—and wariness—I no longer question watching the healthcare town hall meetings where some Americans are actually so enraged—is that the right word?—by Obama's attempt to reform healthcare that they think carrying around assault weapons is a good idea. It's fascinating to see what really drives some Americans crazy: not global poverty, wars of choice, environmental collapse, or injustice, no, instead, it’s the attempt to give more people health care. Well, if health care can drive so many Americans over the brink of sanity than perhaps playing it 'cool' on climate change is the smart move. But is it the right move?
Shouldn't the President be attempting to educate the public where their knowledge is lacking—especially in regards to something as potentially devastating as climate change?
Some Last Thoughts
This essay is not meant to ignore the Obama administration's many positive actions taken on behalf of the environment: overturning Bush’s changes to the ESA, raising the fuel efficiency standard, allowing states to set higher tailpipe emission standards than the federal government, billions in the stimulus for a green economy, revoking a decree that would have allowed drilling near national parks (another leftover from Bush), and giving the EPA the authority to limit carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, an authority they have yet to employ, but there's no question that it has scared congress into action. When focused and directed, Obama has shown he can make big differences for the environment. However, recently he and his administration have also shown their weakness on environmental issues and their ability to be swayed by political pressure, big business, or both.
I know that some conservationists and environmentalists might not like this article, because of its criticisms of the Obama administration. In general, they approve of Obama—as do I—and they believe enough people are already trying to tear him down. But I would say what Obama told us when he was running for President: he can't do it alone. If we as a nation are expecting broad changes across the board, from war and peace, to health care, to the economy, to the environment then he will need the people's help and apart of that help is to point out mistakes.
After all, even though he's Obama, he’s still just one imperfect man. He's got the weight of the country—and much of the world—on his shoulders, and so from time to time he—as well as the administration—needs reminding.
That is what this essay has been about: an attempt to remind Obama, and even more everyone working under him, about their promises related to environmental policies and to point out, hopefully constructively, places where I believe they have gone awry. Because in voting for Obama, people were not just voting for empty slogans of 'change' and 'hope', people were voting for new ways of thinking, new ways of moving forward. People wanted a president who both acknowledged and tackled the issues facing the world today. We have seen this in fits and starts from the Obama administration, especially in terms of foreign policy relations. But in terms of environmental policy, for the most part it feels like we have moved back to the Clinton age, where decisions were made not because they were right or necessary or based on scientific findings, but because they were safe. Now, going safe isn't always a bad thing. But considering the environmental issues that face America and globe—mass extinction, water crisis, food crisis, pollution, deforestation, and of course climate change—constantly playing it politically 'safe' is no longer a viable option.
Obama has a lot on his plate: there is no question about that. In fact, no President since FDR has probably had so much to deal with at once. But the President should remember that no American President is remembered fondly for environmental destruction or even hem-and-hawing their way through environmental policy. Though some Americans complain about environmentalists, the majority adore conservationists. They love their wilderness and they want their children to grow up with intact ecosystems, thriving species, and clean air, water, and food. Teddy Roosevelt is remembered perhaps most fondly for his environmentalism. Richard Nixon, who is reviled for most of his decisions in office, is still celebrated for signing landmark environmental legislation. Jimmy Carter's views on the environment and energy, decades later, have now been vindicated, and he is increasingly touted for his foresight. If Obama really wants to create 'change' in this country, he should look to their examples.
It is more and more likely that environmental degradation, destruction, and contamination will be the large-scale issue for this century (since this issue underlies food shortages, droughts, water crises, and a hotter world), and if Obama wants to be a president of foresight and wisdom—again one of the many reasons American's elected him—he should not be viewing environmental policy in the short-term, but rather how will what he do affect his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.