Big Green confronts Obama on climate-energy policy link

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cavalry_arriving_small_smallA year ago we wrote of  Obama’s policy on fossil fuel development: “‘All of the above’ is not compatible with a serious strategy to deal with the threat of global climatic disruption. … He can’t have it both ways.” Our message to the big environmental groups was: no more co-optation by the White House on climate messaging. Now, in a letter to Obama, 18 national environmental organizations write: “We believe that continued reliance on an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy … would undermine our nation’s capacity to respond to the threat of climate disruption.” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said to the Washington Post: “You can’t have it both ways.” The cavalry has arrived.

Juliet Eilperin and Lenny Bernstein have the story in the Washington Post (Environmental groups say Obama needs to address climate change more aggressively), leading with:

A group of the nation’s leading environmental organizations is breaking with the administration over its energy policy, arguing that the White House needs to apply a strict climate test to all of its energy decisions or risk undermining one of the president’s top ­second-term priorities.

The rift — reflected in a letter sent to President Obama by 18 groups, including the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Earthjustice — signals that the administration is under pressure to confront the fossil-fuel industry or risk losing support from a critical part of its political base during an already difficult election year.

For years, the administration has pushed aggressively to limit pollution from coal-fired power plants and improve fuel efficiency in transportation while also embracing domestic production of natural gas, oil and coal under an “all of the above” energy strategy. This has angered environmental groups, which reluctantly went along until Thursday’s break.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an interview. …

Excerpt from the letter:

We believe that continued reliance on an “all of the above” energy strategy would be fundamentally at odds with your goal of cutting carbon pollution and would undermine our nation’s capacity to respond to the threat of climate disruption. …

We understand that the U.S. cannot immediately end its use of fossil fuels and we also appreciate the advantages of being more energy independent. But an “all of the above” approach that places virtually no limits on whether, when, where or how fossil fuels are extracted ignores the impacts of carbon-intense fuels and is wrong for America’s future. America requires an ambitious energy vision that reduces consumption of these fuels in order to meet the scale of the climate crisis.

An “all of the above” strategy is a compromise that future generations can’t afford. …

We believe that a climate impact lens should be applied to all decisions regarding new fossil fuel development, and urge that a “carbon-reducing clean energy” strategy rather than an “all of the above” strategy become the operative paradigm for your administration’s energy decisions.

In the coming months your administration will be making key decisions regarding fossil fuel development — including the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking on public lands, and drilling in the Arctic ocean — that will either set us on a path to achieve the clean energy future we all envision or will significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. We urge you to make climate impacts and emission increases critical considerations in each of these decisions.

This is an excellent development. Of course, there has been much disappointment and discontent with the White House’s long stretches of ‘climate silence’ for several years after 2009; with the slow pace of development, articulation, and implementation of a meaningful climate strategy; and in particular with the administration’s continuing support for and failure to rein in large-scale development of fossil fuels. But environmental groups have typically been quick to praise any signal from the White House that the President is getting serious about climate change, and any incremental step in the right direction on climate policy. At the same time, environmentalists, including grassroots groups around the country on many fronts in many placed-based battles, have been opposing ‘all of the above’ dirty energy development.

The Bureau of Land Management has leased to the coal industry 400 million tons of coal on federal land in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, and the administration has defended the decision against a court challenge by environmental groups. Mountaintop removal coal mining continues its destructive path in Appalachia, with the administration failing to effectively rein in this egregious practice.

Shell Oil is finalizing plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska this summer. Oil leasing and drilling has picked up again in the Gulf of Mexico, following a hiatus after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout disaster in 2010. BP has reported a new oil find, miles below the surface.

EPA has bailed out of three major enforcement cases in three states on water contamination from natural gas hydrofracking. EPA continues to work on developing guidance for fracking operations, and continues a multi-year study of the potential threat of fracking to drinking water, while the industry, with gung ho administration support, continues the fait accompli of radically expanded fracking across the country.

U.S. coal displaced from power plants by natural gas is being exported to Europe to create its greenhouse gas emissions there, while new coal export terminals are proposed in the Pacific Northwest for shipping to Asia. The administration supports development of natural gas export terminals and the development of natural gas infrastructure abroad, which would lock in many decades of continued fossil fueled electricity. The oil industry pushes for export of U.S.-produced oil.

The Keystone XL pipeline permit is pending — something that no doubt would have sailed through the permitting process with nary a hitch had not a national movement been organized to send a clear message to Obama that he would pay a price for giving the back of his hand to his green base on this one.

The President wants to be seen by environmentalists as a good guy on climate change — wants full credit for what have so far amounted to limited steps. In the sixth year of his presidency, we have a proposed rule from EPA on emissions from future power plants, and a prospective proposed rule on existing plants. Perhaps the former will be finalized before the 2014 election, perhaps not; the latter will be in the works for a few more years. Then there will be the years of litigation to defend the rules from court challenges by industry groups and red state politicians. Down the road, if the rules take effect and are effective, we will seen some bending of the trajectory of U.S. emissions, which are projected to increase in the coming years.

Meanwhile, the President has found it to be too heavy a lift politically to really take on the fossil fuel interests — notwithstanding the misleading whining from Capitol Hill. Enough already. As we’ve been saying — and as some of the most influential voices and organizations in the environmental community are now saying, together: you can’t have it both ways.

Now, to move forward in terms of this re-framed narrative.

From some earlier posts:

More truth-telling about Obama and climate policy from Bill McKibben (December 2013)

“[T]here were plenty of cynics who said Obama and his insiders were too closely tied to the fossil-fuel industry to take climate change seriously,” our friend Bill McKibben writes in Rolling Stone. And “it’s looked more and more like they were right – that in our hope for action we were willing ourselves to overlook the black-and-white proof of how he really feels.” A must-read article that calls for pushing the President hard while working around his obvious limitations.

“Obama and Harper — Modes of Support for Fossil Fuel Development” (October 2013)

[D]espite the numerous constructive action items in Obama’s Climate Action Plan, there appears to be a contradiction at the heart of Obama’s policy, as indicated by the administration’s adoption of what they call an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy development. …

There are sIgns that the administration may be allowing political pressure from the natural gas industry to compromise investigations by the Environmental Protection Agency into fracking contamination incidents. The EPA has pulled back from several high-profile investigations in a manner that raises questions about whether this indicates a pattern of failure to act on scientific evidence. When the EPA’s scientists found evidence that fracking was contaminating water supplies, the EPA stopped or slowed down their work in in PennsylvaniaTexas, and Wyoming.

“Not only does this pattern of behavior leave impacted residents in the lurch, but it raises important questions as to whether the agency is caving to pressure from industry, antagonistic members of Congress and/or other outside sources,” Kate Sinding at the Natural Resources Defense Council notes. …

Obama has adopted a forward-looking position on climate change. But his ‘all of the above’ energy policy, and particularly his full-speed-ahead support for shale gas fracking, raises the question of whether politics is impeding freedom of communication by government experts — and whether the EPA is thereby being impeded in doing its job of protecting the public against the environmental dangers of fossil fuel development.

Review comments on CAR-6: U.S. Climate Action Report draft lacks long-term strategy (October 2013)

Climate Science Watch submitted the following comments on October 24 to the U.S. State Department on the public review draft of CAR-6:

“The continuing advance of climate science, as synthesized in the recently released IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), points ever more strongly to the need for a phase-out of carbon emissions from fossil fuels in order to avert disastrous impacts of global climatic disruption. Yet, while CAR-6 and the President’s Climate Action Plan outline numerous constructive near-term action items, they do not present a strategy for achieving a fossil-fuel phase-out. In fact, there appears to be a contradiction at the heart of the administration’s policy, as indicated by the adoption of an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy development, including increased extraction and use of coal, oil, and natural gas. …”

President Obama and The Climate Emergency (July 2013)

Much of President Obama’s comprehensive new Climate Action Plan and energy policy is admirable and high-minded, but the eloquence masks some darker unspoken truths.

The climate plan announced in his June 26th Georgetown University speech, begins, “. . . we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged.” The speech then echoes this theme, saying that we must act now, “as caretakers of the future,” on behalf of “our children and our children’s children.” …

Yet despite acknowledging the urgency of the problem, the speech of necessity, for political reasons, is moderate and restrained. No deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions or emergency measures. No calls for a carbon tax, no restraints on coal exports, fracking, or offshore oil drilling. No politically unpopular phase-out or moratorium on new coal power plants (though the President does oppose funding new coal plants in developing countries through international aid agencies.)

The Obama climate plan is thus nested comfortably in the embrace of Obama’s previously articulated, and politically guarded, “All of the Above” energy policy.

What does Obama mean by “Sustainable Energy”? (January 2013)

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” President Obama said in his second Inaugural Address on January 21.  “But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.” What is the President thinking of when he uses the term “sustainable energy”? Does he think it’s compatible with his current “all of the above” energy policy, or will he acknowledge the contradiction and the need to re-frame his approach? …

President Obama and his administration have been talking in terms of their ‘all of the above’ energy strategy. They have talked about what they are doing to promote increased production of oil (including offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean and deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico). They talk about the importance of increasing production of natural gas using hydrofracking technology. They talk about supporting development of ‘clean coal’ and continue to allow mountaintop removal coal mining. They are seriously considering granting a permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada. And so forth. During the 2012 election campaign, they touted their ‘all of the above’ approach without talking about climate change as a driver for a U.S. energy strategy.

The way the Administration has presented it, ‘all of the above’ is not compatible with a serious strategy to deal with the threat of global climatic disruption. It’s not compatible because it has not been framed in terms of expediting a phase-out of the fossil-fueled energy system, which is what a serious climate strategy will entail. Now that Obama is making a commitment to “respond to the threat of climate change” and acknowledging that this requires a commitment to a “sustainable energy” system, he should be expected to re-frame his Administration’s energy policy to focus on how it is driven by these commitments.

He can’t have it both ways.

Message to enviro groups: No more co-optation by Obama on climate change (December 2012)

During Obama’s first term environmental groups were complicit in enabling what became years of ‘climate silence,’ by allowing themselves to be co-opted by a White House messaging strategy to talk about ‘clean energy’ but not climate change. It’s time they reclaim a position of politically independent integrity. …

White House energy policy talk has ‘all of the above’ except climate change (July 2012)

Speaking to a Washington, DC, audience at the NDN advocacy think tank, Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, outlined in 2,500 words what the Obama Administration is doing to promote production of oil, natural gas, ‘clean’ coal, nuclear power, and renewable energy, plus increased energy efficiency – the ‘all of the above’ approach, they call it – without mentioning climate change as a driver for a US energy strategy.  ‘All of the above’ is certainly not a way to develop a climate strategy.

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