Once again, however, the administration applied the same backroom approach it took to health care reform. Instead of waging a public debate to pit the American people against the corporate polluters, Obama gave the polluters a seat at the negotiating table. In private, big energy firms were offered sweetheart deals to acquiesce to the climate bill, including expanded offshore drilling for oil giants like BP and taxpayer subsidies for coal and nuclear interests that outstripped those for clean energy. "Kerry-Lieberman read like an industry wish list," says a top Senate environmental staffer. "The bill invests heavily in coal and nuclear, but doesn't do a heck of a lot for efficiency and renewables."
The White House was deeply engaged in the negotiations. "There have been almost 200 meetings or calls between Cabinet members, White House officials and senators on this issue," says Browner. "We've got everyone from [Energy Secretary] Steven Chu to [Interior Secretary] Ken Salazar to [EPA administrator] Lisa Jackson engaged. I've probably been up there in the Senate on this issue 50, 60, 70 times during this Congress, talking to both Republicans and Democrats."
At first, climate advocates were resigned to the backroom deals, figuring they were necessary to achieve a greater good. "It looked like the only way to pass a bill," says a Senate staffer familiar with the negotiations, "was to make all of these horrendous compromises." But then the strategy backfired. "What that bill did was essentially write nuclear and coal into U.S. energy production for the next 10 to 20 years, instead of phasing them out," says Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. "And it didn't pick up any Republicans whatsoever." In fact, the tripartisan approach lost its only Republican supporter when Harry Reid tried to appease his home-state constituency in Nevada by placing immigration ahead of climate change in the Senate. Graham, who felt betrayed by the about-face, bowed out on April 24th, threatening to filibuster his own bill.
In one respect, the timing proved fortuitous. Graham, Kerry and Lieberman had been set to officially unveil the details of their climate bill – including its expansion of offshore drilling – at a press conference on April 26th. According to one insider, the senators would have been flanked at the event by BP and other big energy players. "The press conference was canceled at the last minute because Graham pulled out," says the insider. That same week, BP's oil rig in the Gulf had exploded, killing 11 workers and unleashing the biggest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. The oil spill sealed the fate of the Kerry-Lieberman bill, making any push to expand offshore drilling untenable in the short term. "You had a major part of the legislation blow up, literally," says a House source close to climate negotiations. "And that somehow meant people said, 'Well, we should shut down the entire bill.' That's the logic of the Senate."
By another logic, the disaster in the Gulf should have been a critical turning point for global warming. Handled correctly, the BP spill should have been to climate legislation what September 11th was to the Patriot Act, or the financial collapse was to the bank bailout. Disasters drive sweeping legislation, and precedent was on the side of a great leap forward in environmental progress. In 1969, an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California – of only 100,000 barrels, less than the two-day output of the BP gusher – prompted Richard Nixon to create the EPA and sign the Clean Air Act.
But the Obama administration let the opportunity slip away. On June 15th, the president – a communicator whom even top Republican operatives rank above Reagan – sat at his desk to deliver his first address to the nation from the Oval Office. It was a terrible, teachable moment, one in which he could have connected the dots between the oil spewing into the Gulf and the planet-killing CO2 we spew every day into the atmosphere. But Obama never even mentioned the words "carbon" or "emissions" or "greenhouse" – not even the word "pollution." The president's sole mention of "climate" came in a glancing description of the "comprehensive energy and climate bill" that the House passed. In a moment that cried out for direction-setting from the nation's chief executive, Obama brought no concrete ideas to the table. Restating the need to break our addiction to fossil fuels, he stared at the camera and confessed that "we don't yet know precisely how we're going to get there." He didn't challenge Americans to examine their own energy habits. He didn't rally his fellow Democrats into a fight with the Republican Party of "Smokey" Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who later apologized to BP. Far from offering a clarion call for action, Obama said, meekly, that he would listen to give senators from both parties a "fair hearing in the months ahead." Then he asked us to pray.
Climate advocates were stunned. "That speech wasn't anything different than Bush gave in an energy address," says Pica. "There was nothing new about climate and energy – it didn't move the debate forward. If he was going to recycle the same old talking points, maybe he should have just let Robert Gibbs give a little talk about it to the press corps."
In the aftermath of Obama's speech, environmental advocates seemed to wake up to the idea that the president doesn't have the spine for this fight. Al Gore tried to sound the call to action that Obama failed to deliver: "Placing a limit on global-warming pollution and accelerating the deployment of clean energy technologies is the only truly effective long-term solution to this crisis," Gore said. "Now it is time for the Senate to act. In the midst of the greatest environmental disaster in our history, there is no excuse to do otherwise."
But the president never picked up on the calls for action. Fed up, nine high-profile environmental groups – including Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists – wrote a scathing open letter to the White House, pleading with Obama not to fumble away this opportunity. "A rapidly growing number of our millions of active members are deeply frustrated at the inability of the Senate and your administration to act in the face of an overwhelming disaster in the Gulf, and the danger to our nation and world," the letter warned. "The Senate needs your help to end this paralysis. With the window of opportunity quickly closing, nothing less than your direct personal involvement, and that of senior administration officials, can secure America's clean-energy future."
Obama's refusal to fight for meaningful climate legislation in Congress is all the more disappointing given the significant progress his administration has made on its own. Under Obama, the EPA had pushed forward with plans to regulate climate pollution under the Clean Air Act. The president's stimulus package included unprecedented investments in clean energy and green jobs, and on July 3rd the administration unveiled $2 billion in new spending to support solar power. The administration used its leverage over the bankrupt auto industry to secure a historic increase in fuel efficiency. And top Cabinet officials from Browner to Chu to Jackson – even Salazar, who greenlighted the nation's first offshore wind farm – have walked their talk on global warming. The president himself has made six major speeches on the need for climate legislation, and last December he flew to Copenhagen to help salvage international climate talks from a complete crash-and-burn.
Browner is quick to point out that the administration still holds a trump card: the EPA's new power to crack down on carbon emissions, without the help of Congress. "Everyone understands that we've got an EPA with authority," she says. "They've been thinking very carefully, very thoughtfully, on how they would exercise that authority."
If the president doesn't have his heart in taking the lead on climate change, it's clear that he's still willing to play defense. In June, a bipartisan group of senators led by Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, backed an amendment to prohibit the EPA from regulating climate pollution from utilities, manufacturers and other stationary sources. The measure would also have instructed the agency to ignore the Supreme Court decision last year that requires the EPA to regulate carbon as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The amendment ultimately failed by a vote of 53-47, despite support from six Democrats – Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.
"We worked very hard to beat the Murkowski amendment back," Browner says, adding that this was one legislative battle Obama didn't duck.
The president," she says, "was engaged on that."
This article is from RS 1110, on newsstands July 23, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via All Access, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here for the archives. Not a member? Click here to learn more about All Access.
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