By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Not long before his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama ventured to a place he'd never been in three well-traveled years as president: the Environmental Protection Agency.
For a Democrat who won the White House with strong green credentials, Obama has kept his environmental policies well below the radar for much of his presidency.
The trip to the EPA, the rejection of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone pipeline, the long-delayed roll-out of regulations on mercury pollution and auto fuel efficiency standards suggest this is changing as Obama's re-election campaign gets into gear.
There have been setbacks for Obama's ecologically minded constituents, notably the administration's failure to get any traction on a bill to cap climate-warming carbon dioxide and a White House decision to scrap more stringent standards on ozone smog pollution. A move to sell oil-and-gas drilling leases off Alaska's Arctic coast has prompted lawsuits from opponents who say any spill there would be impossible to clean up.
But most in the U.S. environmental community see Obama as an ally, recognize the obstacles in his path in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and welcome his increasingly high-profile green actions. And they don't particularly blame him for failing to get on board sooner.
His trip to the EPA in January was likely well received in the environmental community. Obama said he just wanted to say thank you for all their hard work, an acknowledgement of the heavy lifting the agency was doing to carry out his agenda, while under a focused attack from Republicans.
Obama faces little political risk in these green maneuvers, according to Steven Cohen, executive director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York.
American voters who identify themselves as environmentalists are a relatively small group, Cohen said, but those who consider themselves pro-environment are usually 70 percent of the electorate. And most independent voters are in that category.
"He's not going to convince people he's more pro-business than the Republicans, so he might as well create a more nuanced view for the independents and the environmentalists. And that's what I think he's doing."
Navin Nayak at the League of Conservation Voters called Obama's environmental accomplishments remarkable in light of a sometimes obstructionist Congress and the struggling economy. And while these achievements have reached critical mass in the last six months, he said the administration has been working on them since the Obama team came into office in 2009.
The general election campaign could see Obama taking more strong positions on the environmental front, designed to give Obama a more public green tint, Nayak reckons.
"I think they would rather have done a lot of these things through Congress, but over the last year they recognized that was never going to happen," he said. "What you're seeing now is a president who sees that there are other ways to get things done ... in Washington in terms of the public interest."
COURTING VOTERS WHO MAY HAVE DRIFTED
Obama said as much in the State of the Union address on Tuesday when he acknowledged that this divided Congress would not agree to curb climate change. But he told the assembled members of the House of Representatives and Senate to "at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation."
This could be smart election-year positioning, according to Karlyn Bowman, who tracks public opinion polling at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
"We don't know how big the environment vote is, but in a close election everything matters, and you certainly want to appeal to environmentalists."
Bowman acknowledged that it could also be a realization that Obama was unlikely to win many entrenched Republican votes by backing oil projects such as Keystone. He had more to gain electorally by staying closer to his green credentials.
"You need to appeal to those people who have been your supporters, are your supporters and maybe have drifted a little away in the past," she said.
Obama may have another advantage this year on the green front: a surge in voters who never before considered themselves to be environmentalists.
Frances Beinicke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, sees a clear and recent shift, starting with reaction to the massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the localized concerns about water contamination in the natural gas drilling boom and the worry about oil spills in the Canada-to-Texas Keystone pipeline.
"There are more and more affected people, by what our energy policies are, all over the country," Beinicke said. "They haven't ever experienced that before and didn't expect to be an energy victim ... And these people are saying, 'I'm not an environmentalist, but this is happening to me.'"
Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey, sees a strengthened environmental stance as a good move for Obama at a time when opponents of environmental action "are out of step with the American people.
"Maybe the White House is understanding for the first time that many of the groups that are attacking him on environmental issues are really just fronts for the same right wing corporations that are attacking him on everything else from healthcare to minimum wage," Tittel said.
At the Center for American Progress, Dan Weiss figured the shift was not so much in action as in communication: "I don't think President Obama is resurgent on environment as much as he is communicating his successes more directly."
(Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent; Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Russell Blinch)
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