Watch Out for the Green Team

Posted: Jun 04, 2013 8:00 AM

Obama seems poised to make green agenda a top priority his second term. How far will his likely Cabinet go to make that happen? Joel Gehrke reports.


President Obama swept into office promising to turn back the oceans and heal the planet with his climate change policy, so his first term proved disappointing to environmental activists.

“I thought that he really did understand ‘the urgency of now’ on climate change,” Democratic mega-donor Susie Tompkins Buell told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012 to explain why she wasn’t fundraising for Obama. “He has not been vocal enough ... and I want to encourage him to lead me.”

Obama hardly ignored the environmentalists, but he didn’t make their issue his top priority. Instead, he spent the Democratic Party’s political capital on health care legislation in the first part of his term, which allowed a cap-and-trade bill sponsored by Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer of California to languish. In 2010, with the tea party backlash against ObamaCare underway, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada killed an updated version of the legislation in order to protect his rank-and-file members from another damaging vote.”

As a consolation prize, the green activists received an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) very friendly to their cause that produced an aggressive array of regulations designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Even that effort fell prey to political pressure; for instance, Obama refused to allow then-EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to unveil new National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), or the smog rule—a move The New York Times hinted came because the economic damage caused by the rule would in part undermine the president’s re-election campaign.

Last but not least, the Solyndra bankruptcy embarrassed the Obama team’s green subsidy programs, emerging as an icon of a green industry not ready for the free market.

With the election behind him, the president has more flexibility on green issues and a renewed emphasis on “the urgency of now” that Buell expected four years ago.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said during his second (Reuters/Larry Downing) inaugural address. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.” He suggested that the government must stimulate the growth of the renewable industry in order “to maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure—our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks.”

The theme reappeared in his State of the Union speech not long after. He renewed his call for Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation, but he’s not exactly desperate for legislative approval of his green policy.

“If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” Obama said during the address. “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, expects Obama to pursue a two-pronged “anti-traditional energy strategy” of increasing regulations on carbon-based energies while subsidizing his preferred energy sectors.

“I think clearly the 2010 election in the House shut down the Obama legislative agenda, but they just reacted by turning to their administrative agenda,” Vitter told Townhall. “I think you see that now that he’s passed his re-election. You see that in terms of climate change [and] greenhouse gases really getting a dominant push, all on the regulatory side.”

The Departments of Energy, Interior, Defense and State will play an especially important role in this effort—together with the EPA, they can shape energy policy at home and abroad, even without new congressional authorization.

Unilateral Power

President Obama sometimes used creative means to advance his preferred environmental agenda in the first term. For instance, the Transportation Department (DOT) cut the amount of time certain truck drivers are allowed to work in a single shift, a policy change that slows the delivery of water and sand needed for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of natural gas wells. Similarly, an agency in the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is using its jurisdiction over workplace safety to regulate fracking by lowering the amount of silica dust (a respiratory hazard) that natural gas wells may emit.

In his latest State of the Union address, Obama called for Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation, adding that he would take executive action to lower carbon emissions if the lawmakers did not.

Accordingly, the White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) may soon reinterpret the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), a law signed by Richard Nixon, in a way that requires the executive branch to withhold permits for projects on federal land pending a study of how the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project might affect the environment.

This policy change would incorporate every department into the administration’s green team, because it directs each agency to use a greenhouse gas emissions test when considering a project. Before building a highway, for instance, the government would have to evaluate the greenhouse gas emissions caused not only by construction and use of the highway, but also those emissions caused by the use of products that travel along the highway.

So, coal exports, drilling, the Keystone XL pipeline—these can be blocked within the departments by that greenhouse gas test. Those projects that garner approval face further delay by environmentalists who can ask judges to revoke the permits for authorized projects on the argument that this greenhouse gas analysis was not properly applied.

“For an agency to have to consider all the greenhouse gas emissions could really stifle a lot of these projects or unnecessarily hold them up in years of regulatory delay or litigation,” The Heritage Foundation’s Nick Loris said in an interview with Townhall. “Stopping these projects is going to stop a lot of jobs from being created, but it’s not going significantly reduce global emissions.”

Excerpted from Townhall Magazine's June feature, "Watch Out for the Green Team," by Joel Gehrke. To read more of Gehrke's report, subscribe to Townhall Magazine today.