Under Bush and vice president Dick Cheney, resource extraction – logging, mining, drilling for oil and gas – as often as not were favored over protection of habitat and endangered species. So was carbon-emitting energy production over conservation and “green” renewable energy.
No surprise there, since both Bush and Cheney had been oil men. It was more than symbolic that environmentalists got short shrift in the backroom meetings of Cheney’s energy task force.
But things would be different with a progressive, young Democrat in the White House, enviros thought.
'A green, dream team'
Just as important to those looking for a change in direction were Obama’s appointments to high environmental offices: Carol Browner, who’d headed the EPA under Bill Clinton, as White House climate and energy policy chief; Lisa Jackson, former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, as EPA administrator; former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and US Senator Ken Salazar as secretary of the Interior; and as secretary of Energy, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu.
Indeed, things did change – particularly regarding climate change and declared energy policy as it relates to creating jobs and improving the economy. And from the California Bay Delta to the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay, the Obama administration pushed new strategies for environmental protection and restoration.
But recently, Obama and his administration have been taking flak from the left on the environment.
“The big picture for species recovery in southwestern national forests is grim,” said Taylor McKinnon, the group’s public lands campaigns director. “In addition to failing to monitor and protect endangered species while implementing the current forest plans, the Forest Service is aiming to roll back species protections in its new plans. In the long run, that’s a recipe for extinction.”
A week earlier, the same organization sued Interior Secretary Salazar for not turning over emails, phone logs, and notes from his meetings with oil-industry lobbyists before the BP oil spill when the administration agreed to more offshore oil and gas drilling.
“We want to know who Salazar was talking to, what was said, and what deals were made,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the organization. “The Obama administration pledged to be open and transparent in its decision-making, but when it comes to meeting with oil industry lobbyists, this administration is as secretive as the Cheney-Bush White House.”
In the Pacific Northwest, environmentalists are urging Obama to not allow the shipping of large equipment up the Columbia and Snake Rivers – habitat for threatened and endangered salmon – to a tar sands oil project in Alberta.
“Canadian tar sands development is one of the largest, most destructive industrial projects on earth,” warns Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation groups and businesses
Meanwhile, some government scientists say they still feel pressure to adjust their work for political considerations.
"We are getting complaints from government scientists now at the same rate we were during the Bush administration," Jeffrey Ruch, who heads the whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the Los Angeles Times.
But it is the inability to get comprehensive energy and climate legislation that environmental advocates see as Obama’s biggest failure.
“Obama is the first president in history to articulate in stark terms both the why and how of the sustainable clean energy vision,” writes physicist and author Joseph Romm. “But the question now is whether he really believed what he said.”
Writing in the current issue of Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson says, “Obama, so far, has shown no urgency on the issue, and little willingness to lead – despite a June poll showing that 76 percent of Americans believe the government should limit climate pollution.”
'Did Obama kill the climate bill?"
“After BP's well blew out, Obama's infamously milquetoast address from the Oval Office never connected the disaster with the need for a cap on carbon,” Harkinson writes. “All of this wasn't for a lack of pressure from his allies. Nine high-profile environmental groups wrote a letter to the president pleading that ‘nothing less than your direct personal involvement’ will break the logjam in the Senate.”
This past week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged that he didn’t have the votes to pass the kind of cap-and-trade energy reform bill approved by the House a year ago. Instead, Reid is expected to detail a much-slimmed-down energy bill, minus any climate provision that would have capped carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Many of Obama’s critics in the environmental community are spring-loaded to sound the alarm – or file a lawsuit – no matter who is in the White House. For some, it’s a good fund-raising tactic.
But for now, activists are finding that the “dream team” they once rejoiced in is not so green.