Is Obama dragging his feet on environmental issues to get reelected?

The Obama administration's recent record on environmental issues is uninspired, critics say. But the president faces more immediate problems with the economy and record-high unemployment.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson during the Senate Environment and Public Works hearing on the Clean Air Act June 15. The EPA announced this week it would miss a deadline for issuing greenhouse gas regulations for power plants and refineries.

To many environmentalists, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) announcement this week that it would miss a deadline for setting greenhouse gas regulations for power plants and refineries is one more sign that the Obama administration is dragging its feet on a range of environmental issues.

Whether or not that’s true, the economy – particularly record joblessness – seems to be trumping the environment these days.

Earlier this month, the White House asked the EPA to rewrite an air-quality rule on smog-producing ozone that critics warned would cost millions of jobs. The more pressing need now, President Obama said, is “reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover.”

The administration also seems increasingly likely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline to transport tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico – a prospect that has seen protesters arrested outside the White House. Meanwhile, Obama signed a budget bill that could reduce protections for wolves and wilderness in western states.

Writing in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Jeff Goodell, author of "How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate," acknowledges that the president made a deal with automakers to double fuel-efficiency standards by 2025, increased spending for clean-energy research, and “made some impressive appointments to key positions,” including EPA chief Lisa Jackson and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

“But overall, Obama's record on the environment has been uninspired – and that's putting it kindly,” Mr. Goodell writes. “He hasn't stopped coal companies from blowing up mountaintops and devastating large regions of Appalachia. He caved in on tightening federal standards for ozone pollution, putting the lives of millions of Americans at risk. And the biggest tragedy: He has done almost nothing to rein in carbon pollution – or even to convince Americans that, in the long run, cooking the planet with coal and oil is a bad idea.”

Presidents can’t do everything at once, and the country again finds itself in a situation where “it’s the economy, stupid” is again the prevailing mantra. Regulating corporate and individual action – particularly for a problem that seems to the lay person to be way off in the future – has become even more difficult.

Most of Obama’s likely GOP opponents in the 2012 presidential election – even Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, who once backed strong efforts to address greenhouse gas-induced climate change – are in the camp of global warming skeptics (if not deniers).

Even so, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that the percentage of Americans who believe the earth has been warming has risen to 83 percent from 75 percent last year – 71 percent of whom believe the heating of the planet is caused, at least in part, by human activity.

That may not impress GOP presidential candidates like Rick Perry (who has accused scientists of manipulating climate data) or Michele Bachmann (who says climate change is a hoax). But it does turn up the temperature on Obama among the pro-environment base that helped get him elected president in 2008.

The National Journal regularly polls what it calls “Energy and Environment Insiders.”

“Many say that President Obama’s retreat on environmental issues isn't over yet,” the magazine and online news source reported this week. “Over half of Insiders responding said that Obama is likely to delay imposition of other new environmental regulations, with 15 percent calling the prospect 'very likely' and 39 percent deeming it 'somewhat likely.' ”

“The only decision metric that matters for the next 14 months is, ‘Will this help us get reelected?’ ” one Insider told the National Journal. “If a regulatory decision is a liability, we should fully expect the administration to delay until Nov. 7,” of 2012 – the day after the presidential election. Another Insider said that Obama "will likely pick and choose by delaying those rules his advisers believe are too politically damaging to pursue before 2013 and finalizing those that he can survive politically.”

On Thursday, EPA administrator Jackson announced that her agency would miss a court-imposed Sept. 30 deadline for climate-change rules applying to power plants and refineries. A July 26 date for issuing the new regulations had been missed as well. (In 2007, the US Supreme Court sided with 12 states and several cities that had sued the EPA for failure to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.)

Jackson and other EPA officials insist that this week’s delay is not political but bureaucratic. Others have noted that the White House Office of Management and Budget still has to consider the regulations before they can be issued.

But that has not mollified environmentalists who see something more sinister behind the delay.

“Every day we delay cleaning up our nation’s power plants fattens polluter profits and shrinks our chances of tackling the climate crisis,” said National Wildlife Federation climate and energy policy director Joe Mendelson. The announcement on delaying power plant regulations “suggests that when it comes to uncontrolled carbon pollution, the administration appears content with business as usual.”

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