Obama’s mediocre record on the environment

Obama was both good and bad on the environment, and we should be honest about his record, rather than mindlessly praising him, since he appears so much better than the Republican administration that followed him.

On the one hand, Obama did some good things:

  1. Got additional funding for renewables and clean tech in the 2009 stimulus bill,
  2. Talked a lot about a Green Jobs program at beginning of his term, but only got it partially funded by the stimulus, because Republicans blocked it afterwards, so he gave up on it after 2 years.
  3. Worked hard to extend the incentives for renewables and had to negotiate with intransigent Republicans to do it,
  4. Dramatically increased the fleet fuel efficiency standards,
  5. Drafted the Clean Power Plan and tried to get it implemented despite Republican obstructionism,
  6. Implemented a hiatus on leasing coal on federal lands,
  7. Drafted new rules to prevent contamination of streams by coal mining,
  8. Negotiated bilateral deals with China and Canada/Mexico to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  9. Signed the Paris Agreement and did not work behind the scenes to block it.
  10. Appointed smart Secretaries of Energy and other administrators, who helped promote alternative energy, clean transport and clean tech and approve the infrastructure for clean tech.

On the other hand, Obama did a lot of bad things:

  1. During the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, the US had a secret meeting with China, S. Africa, Brazil and India where they basically agreed to gut the Copenhagen Agreement so it would be toothless. At that point with Democratic control of congress, the Democrats could have ratified a strong Copenhagen agreement, but Obama’s negotiators worked behind the scenes to make it as weak as possible.
  2. He did not use his bully pulpit to defend his Green Jobs initiative and he did not stand up for Van Jones, his green jobs czar, and fight back against Republican attacks. His Green Jobs initiative depended on putting a price on carbon, but Obama didn’t twist arms in congress or actively campaign to pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (also known as the Waxman-Markey Bill), so he let his Green Jobs initiative wither on the vine.
  3. Obama largely abandoned his Green Jobs program, and instead publicly promoted his “all of the above” energy strategy. He gave speeches talked about how many new jobs were being created in the oil and gas sectors due to fracking, horizontal drilling, off-shore drilling, tar sands and other new extraction technology. Obama sounded like a paid lobbyist for the oil and gas industries in his promotion of new energy jobs in his State of the Union speeches in 2012 and 2013. The US State Department under Clinton went all around the world promoting fracking to other countries and pressuring them to open their doors to US oil and gas companies.
  4. Under Obama, oil extraction more than doubled and it nearly doubled for natural gas, due to the new extraction techniques. Obama promoted greater oil and gas extraction and publicly touted its benefits, and did almost nothing to try and regulate the new extraction techniques for oil and gas. During the Bush years, the Republicans passed laws to exempt fracking from the Clean Water Act, but Obama could have used the Clean Air Act and other laws to regulate the new extraction techniques, but he didn’t even try to properly regulate the fossil fuel industries and slow down the new extraction boom.
  5. Obama appointed EPA administrators who denied the harmful effects of fracking and refused to use their regulatory power to control fracking. Due to the inaction of the EPA, Congress had to pass a law saying that the EPA should study the effects of fracking. Then, the EPA did a substandard job of measuring the methane emissions, because the oil and gas industries wouldn’t cooperate and the EPA wasn’t willing to publicly oppose them. Under lobbying pressure, the EPA reduced its calculations about the percentage of leaking methane emissions from natural gas extraction. NOAA did some good studies on leaking methane over fracking fields, but the EPA did very little about it and was a very reluctant regulator of fossil fuels extraction.
  6. When the Deep Water Horizon disaster took place in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama was given the opportunity to stop new authorization of off-shore drilling, yet he kept authorizing new leases even when public opinion would have supported banning new off-shore projects. He had the chance to prohibit Arctic exploration for oil, yet he didn’t.
  7. Obama authorized almost every new pipeline and natural gas export project. The number of miles of fossil-fuel pipelines nearly doubled during the Obama administration, and the Obama administration rubberstamped almost all the new pipelines with limited review. Only in the case of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines where activists were on the ground and it was a growing public scandal did Obama finally not reject those pipelines when he was nearly out of office.
  8. Obama refused to enforce the Clean Water Act to stop mountain top removal in coal mining. If he had tried, the Republican controlled congress probably would have passed a law saying that the Clean Water Act doesn’t apply to coal, just like the petroleum industry did, but Obama should have used the Clean Water Act to shut down mountaintop removal until the Republicans acted to stop him. Then, he should have used his bully pulpit to point to how Republicans are poisoning the water, sickening the people of Appalachia and shills to the coal industry. It was only after the coal market started to collapse and the coal companies were declaring bankruptcy that Obama developed any political courage to confront the coal lobby and the EPA started drafting new rules to regulate the pollution in streams from coal mining. A moratorium was declared on new coal leases in public lands right at the end of Obama’s term in office, but that moratorium actually helped the coal industry by reducing the over supply to help raise coal prices.

In summary, Obama gave inspiring speeches about moving to a green economy and creating millions of green jobs at the start of his term, but he promoted greater fossil fuel extraction for most of his time in office and only near the end of his term did his administration start to draft new rules with any real teeth. Most of these new rules will be gutted by Trump, so their real effect is questionable (except for the automobile fuel efficiency fleet standards, because states like California will enforce them). Obama was generally good on policies to promote clean tech, but he was generally bad on fossil fuel extraction. Even on renewable energy where Obama was generally good, it is useful to compare how poorly the US has done compared to the EU and China.

Total Installed electrical capacity in GW and percent of the global capacity at the end of 2016:

Region Solar Wind
US 40.3 GW (13.3%) 82.2 GW (12.9%)
China 78.1 GW (25.8%) 168.7 GW (26.4%)
EU ~100 GW 153.7 GW (24.0%)

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_by_country, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_by_country

Obama repeatedly showed his lack of political courage to confront the greatest moral and environmental crisis of our time. As a corporate, centrist Democrat, Obama proved incapable of taking on the corporate interests behind fossil fuel extraction. In normal times, Obama’s half measures would have been acceptable, but we are in the middle of an ecological crisis that demands extraordinary measures.

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