Interior Secretary Ken Salazar yesterday announced an enormous expansion in coal-mining that dwarfs the Obama administration's clean energy initiatives -- suggesting that President Obama's response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster increasingly involves doubling down on other forms of dirty, unsafe energy.
A statement from Wild Earth Guardians, Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife put the announcement in perspective:
When burned, the coal threatens to release more than 3.9 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, equal to the annual emissions from 300 coal-fired power plants, further cementing the United States as a leading contributor to climate disruption. ... In today's press conference, Secretary Salazar announced Interior's intent to authorize more than 12,000 megawatts of renewable energy by the end of next year... Yet in opening the door for 2.35 billion tons of coal mining, Salazar's announcement effectively enables more than 300,000 megawatts of coal-fired energy--30 times more dirty energy development than renewable energy.
In other words, despite his administration's rhetorical embrace of clean energy, when push comes to shove, Obama is effectively using modest wind and solar investments as cover for a broader embrace of dirty fuels. It's the same strategy BP, Chevron, and other major polluters use: tout modest environmental investments in multimillion dollar PR campaigns, while putting the real money into fossil fuel development.
President Obama seems to be rushing to make this embrace even tighter: in the last week, the administration announced four new permits for deepwater offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico -- the same type of exploration that led to the BP oil spill disaster - even as a huge new oil sheen covers the Gulf of Mexico and inundates Louisiana beaches. Like most of his giveaways to polluters, however, this one also failed to generate much praise from major polluting industries.
"We look forward to the day when a single permit on plan doesn't merit a press conference by the Secretary of the Interior," said the American Petroleum Institute's Erik Milito in response.
Taken together, Obama's deepening (and generally unrequited) love for big polluters represents a real challenge for the environmental movement, which has always allowed its hopes -- and its fear of the far right -- to obscure the dirty realities of Obama's actions. But we're now confronted with the prospect that Obama's pro-fossil fuel policies threaten to dwarf positive steps such as increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks -- and his EPA's (court-mandated) "modest" regulation of greenhouse gases.
I hope this is a moment of opportunity for the environmental movement, and a broader progressive movement that has been increasingly spurned by a president moving ever rightward. Freeing ourselves from our own unrequited love affair with Obama can liberate us to adopt a strategy that might actually protect the environment and turn Obama's shift around: at a minimum, we need to join Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) search for a progressive pro-environment primary challenger to Obama. The real prospect of such a challenger is the one thing that could alter Obama's triangulating political calculus.
But we also need to consider our broader approach to accountability. Really -- if Obama's coal and oil blitz (and reckless approach to nuclear) doesn't spur large protests at the White House, the environmental movement might as well pack its bags, rub on some patchouli, and head to the mountains -at least until the bulldozers come. At the end of the day, if we are to succeed, we will need to earn the respect of our friends and foes alike, and that starts with hitting the ballot box and the streets.