The Greenest President Ever?

A year ago the world watched while Barack Obama took the oath of office.  Most of the media attention this week will be on how he has fared politically -- with today's very close Massachusetts Senate Special Election as a centerpiece.

But what about governance?  How has Obama done on the environmental issues -- has he really turned the U.S. government around?

I pointed out a week ago hat he has done far, far more than he has gotten credit for because his progress has mostly been as head of the Executive Branch of government, and the media coverage (and his own messaging) have focused on how his legislative agenda and challenges have impacted the economic crisis.

But what's surprising is how little evidence there is that either the economic crisis or the struggles with the Senate have truly been allowed to impair effective executive leadership. Obama shows every sign of meaning it when he said that he was going to restore a government in which agencies followed the law and were truthful about the science. Even conservative columnist David Brooks conceded this in his column yesterday:

"He has created a thoughtful, pragmatic administration marked by a culture of honest and vigorous debate. When Obama makes a decision, you can be sure that he has heard and accounted for every opposing argument. If he senses an important viewpoint is not represented at a meeting, he will stop the proceedings and demand that it gets included. If the evidence leads him in directions he finds uncomfortable, he will still follow the evidence. He is beholden to no ideological camp, and there is no group in his political base that he has not angered at some point in his first year."

And in the environmental arena, it turns out, that's almost a magic carpet to progress.  The United States has  -- with some important exceptions like overall climate policy and mining law -- a very strong set of federal environmental statutes. If they are, in the words of the oath of office, "faithfully administered," and if good science is applied as Congress mandated, then you get very strong results.

It's hard to appreciate this just from reading the newspaper. So I took the last week of the Obama administration's first year, and culled from the trade press a relatively complete dossier of the Administration's environmental initiatives for a single week:

  • CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley, in response to pressure from the business community, declared that the National Environmental Policy Act does require federal agencies to consider climate change in conducting environmental reviews: "CEQ sees no basis for excluding greenhouse gas emissions from that consideration."   

  • In the wake of litigation filed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups several years ago, the EPA proposed pollution standards for pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous in Florida freshwater lakes, rivers, streams, springs, and canals. The agency said it would propose a rule for estuaries and other coastal waters in January 2011. 
  • Acting on the scientific evidence that a disrupted climate means that federal land managers must take into account the need for connecting ecosystems to preserve their natural values, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans today to educate Americans on the necessity to preserve open spaces and to expand land conservation to a grander scale.  
  • "We hope to launch what will be the creation of a 21st [century] conservation dialogue," Salazar told Interior employees. Americans are losing their connection to the land because three million acres are being sacrificed to development every year, and it is the role of the Department to "tie the American landscape back together." Salazar cautioned, as the science has shown, that we can no longer imagine a national park as insulated or isolated from the lands around it.

  • The EPA, for the first time, declared that in considering whether to issue a permit for a new coal-fired power plant, the state of Arkansas must consider integrated coal-gasification technology as a potential "best available control technology. " The ruling came after the Sierra Club and other environmental groups petitioned EPA over the operating permit for John W. Turk Jr. Power Plant.
  • The Energy Department made another major investment in high-performance lighting technology, granting $37 million in stimulus funding into solid-state lighting projects like LEDs.  "The United States must lead in energy efficiency," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said. "These solid-state lighting projects will help us significantly cut our energy use, reduce our carbon footprint and save money."   
  • Reversing one of the more scientifically outrageous manipulations of the Bush era, the Food and Drug Administration agreed that bisphenol-A (BPA) posed significant regulatory and safety issues to infants and young children, and that the Agency would launch a series of studies to determine how serious the risk might be.  
  • "BPA has not been proven to harm either children or adults, but the data deserves a much closer look because children are being exposed in early stages of development," said William Corr, deputy secretary at the Health and Human Services Department. "We need more research to understand the health effects."

  • The Department of Transportation broadened its guidelines for which mass transit projects qualify for federal funding, agreeing for the first time that benefits to community livability ought to be factored in. "We're going to free our flagship transit capital program from long-standing requirements that have allowed us to only green-light projects that meet very narrow cost and performance criteria," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Instead, as we evaluate major transit projects going forward, we'll consider all the factors that help communities reduce their carbon footprint, spur economic activity and relieve congestion."   
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed the Bush administration's scientifically tainted decision to scale back the habitat needs of the endangered bull trout, adding nearly 20,000 miles of streams and almost 400,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs to designated "critical habitat" for bull trout. The proposal would increase total designated trout habitat to 22,679 miles of stream and 533,426 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Nevada. The Bush 2005 proposal comprised only 3,900 stream miles and 144,000 acres.   
  • The Labor Department awarded $150 million to 38 projects aimed at creating "green" jobs for low-income workers, through its Pathways Out of Poverty program, which focuses on clean energy industries. "These Pathways Out of Poverty grants will help workers in disadvantaged communities gain access to the good, safe and prosperous jobs of the 21st century green economy," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said. "Green jobs present tremendous opportunities for people who have the core skills and competencies needed."   
  • The EPA will propose stricter rules to limit pollution from development and concentrated animal feeding operations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The strategy aims at curbing pollution from newly developed and redeveloped sites. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson also said the Agency would also consider expanding stormwater regulations to apply to new, fast-growing localities and large paved areas like shopping mall parking lots to retain more stormwater on-site.   
  • And finally, continuing its effort to green the auto industry after helping to rescue it, the Obama administration announced $187 million in stimulus funding for green vehicles and clean technology development to nine companies, including General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, Daimler AG and Delphi Holdings LLP.    
  • The League of Conservation Voters, looking at the overall record, gave President Obama a B+. (At an equivalent point, it gave Bill Clinton a C+). Taking into account the legislative record, that's probably fair -- and even on the regulatory side there are areas like mountaintop-removal coal mining and the protection of wolves where the administration has fallen short. 

    But it is important to understand that what President Obama has demonstrated is that even in the middle of two wars and a huge financial and economic crisis, the federal government can and should protect Americans, their health, and their landscape.  All it takes is following the law and respecting the science.