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Environment: Ten Things Obama Must Do

How the president can help slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet - without waiting for Congress

September 14, 2011 9:20 AM ET
obama environment barack rs1140 national affairs
President Barack Obama walks in the White House rose garden.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, he declared that future generations would remember it as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." More than three years later, the oceans are still rising and our planet has done more howling – in the form of extreme weather – than healing. In fact, the current political climate is actually headed in the wrong direction: The most heated talk in Washington right now is not about reducing carbon pollution or expanding renewable energy, but whether to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. Michele Bachmann has pledged to see the EPA's "doors locked and lights turned off." Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas, wants to "let EPA go the way of the dinosaurs that became fossil fuels."

Not that Obama hasn't overseen some progress on the environment. He struck a deal with automakers to double fuel-efficiency standards by 2025. He boosted funding for clean-energy research. And he made some impressive appointments to key positions, including Lisa Jackson as head of the EPA and Steven Chu as secretary of energy. But overall, Obama's record on the environment has been uninspired – and that's putting it kindly. He hasn't stopped coal companies from blowing up mountaintops and devastating large regions of Appalachia. He caved in on tightening federal standards for ozone pollution, putting the lives of millions of Americans at risk. And the biggest tragedy: He has done almost nothing to rein in carbon pollution – or even to convince Americans that, in the long run, cooking the planet with coal and oil is a bad idea.

It's not all Obama's fault: His plans to rebuild America's energy infrastructure have been hampered by the recession, and his efforts on global warming have been stymied by Tea Party wackos and weak-kneed Democrats in Congress. But the president has spent far too much time blaming others, when he could have been taking action on his own. Here are 10 things Obama could do right now – without any say-so from Congress – to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. All it takes is the will – and some political courage.

ONE: Stop the Pipeline
Is it in our national interest to overheat the planet? That's the question Obama faces in deciding whether to approve Keystone XL, a 2,000-mile-long pipeline that will bring 500,000 barrels of tar-sand oil from Canada to oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Greenlighting the $7 billion pipeline would help feed America's addiction to oil – but it would also send a clear signal that Obama ranks cheap gas as a higher priority than a stable climate. Activist and writer Bill McKibben, who organized protests at the White House to stop the pipeline, calls the decision "a defining moment of the Obama years."

There are two big problems with Keystone XL. First, mining and refining the tar sands of Alberta – the second-largest repository of carbon on the planet – requires huge amounts of energy. That's why carbon pollution from tar-sand oil is up to 20 percent higher than from conventional crude. If we burn through the tar sands, warns NASA expert James Hansen, it's "game over" for the climate. Second, an oil spill from the pipeline could devastate the Midwest: A recent study by the University of Nebraska estimates that a worst-case spill in the Platte River would create an oil slick that would stretch for hundreds of miles and contaminate drinking water for millions of Americans.

There are signs the pipeline may already be a done deal: The State Department's environmental review of the project recently concluded that the pipeline would have "no significant impacts." But Obama can still stop the project all by himself, simply by refusing to sign the certificate of national interest required to allow the pipeline to cross the U.S. border. But blocking Keystone XL means saying no to Big Oil. Among the companies with the most to gain if the pipeline is built: Koch Industries, a major backer of the Tea Party. To put pressure on the State Department, which must sign off on the pipeline, Keystone's operator has hired the former deputy director of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign as a lead lobbyist.

Environmental choices don't get much starker than this. "Obama is alone at the top of the key," McKibben recently wrote. "Will he take the 20-foot jumper – or pass the ball?"

TWO: Prevent Oil Spills
Last year, after an explosion at BP's deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and spewed nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Obama convened a national commission to examine the causes of the spill and recommend reforms. "The question is," the president said, "what lessons we can learn from this disaster to make sure it never happens again?"

Not many, apparently. The oil-spill commission, whose chairman called the disaster "both foreseeable and preventable," released its full report last January, along with a long list of recommendations to improve the oversight and safety of offshore drilling. Among them: Involve top scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in decisions about where and how to drill, and boost the industry's liability for environmental and economic damages above $75 million.

But so far, Obama has failed to act. "Most of the recommendations have now been buried," says Rick Steiner, an Alaska oil-spill expert. "It's a travesty." Part of the blame lies with Republicans in the House, who are pushing to open up large swaths of the Atlantic Coast and the Arctic to offshore drilling. But Obama can implement many of the reforms by executive order: Improve training for federal inspectors, impose a fee on the oil industry to cover the cost of regulation, put a stop to the Interior Department's cozy relationship with drillers, and establish Regional Citizens Advisory Councils for both the Gulf and the Arctic to give local communities a voice in how the industry is regulated.

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