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

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President Barack Obama walks in the White House rose garden.
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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.

THREE: Crack Down on Carbon

NASA climate scientist James Hansen has called coal, the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels, "the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet." But Obama has failed to curb carbon pollution from coal plants. He didn't manage to push a program to cap and trade carbon emissions through Congress when he had the chance, and there's no way he can win approval for a straight-up carbon tax. But now he has a chance to do it the old-fashioned way: by wielding the power of the executive branch.

Following a 2007 ruling by the Supreme Court, the EPA has the responsibility to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant. The agency is working on new rules that would cut carbon pollution from power plants – the country's single biggest source of planet-warming emissions. The question is: How tough will they be? To make Big Coal really clean up its act, the standards need to be set at roughly the same pollution levels produced by natural gas – about 1,100 pounds of pollution per megawatt hour of electricity. "That would essentially end the construction of conventional coal plants in America," says Vickie Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. "But if the standards are significantly looser, they could have the perverse effect of actually encouraging the construction of a new generation of plants." The ultimate outcome – no more coal plants, or far too many – is entirely in Obama's hands.

FOUR: Strike a Deal With China
Thanks to America's failure to provide leadership in climate negotiations over the past two decades, the idea that the nations of the world will come together and strike a deal to reduce carbon pollution is an increasingly far-fetched fantasy. But rather than struggle to get global negotiations back on track, why not just cut a deal with the only other country that really matters? Given that the two nations combined emit more than 40 percent of the carbon pollution released into the atmosphere every year, a bilateral agreement with China could have a huge impact on the climate. "Deals among the major emitters are a lot more practical than global treaty-based talks through the United Nations," says David Victor, an expert in international treaties at the University of California in San Diego. A bilateral deal would also remove one of the major roadblocks to congressional action: the fear that driving up the price of oil and gas at home would send more manufacturing jobs scurrying to China.

But even if China didn't agree to a carbon cap – or if Congress refused to follow suit – climate talks with the world's biggest carbon polluter could help shift the debate over global warming. David Doniger, policy director of the National Resources Defense Council's climate center, believes a deal with China to phase out so-called "super greenhouse gases," such as hydrofluorocarbons, is within reach. "It's not going to solve the problem of climate change," he says. "But it's a step in the right direction."

FIVE: Make Coal Clean Up Its Mess
A month before obama took the oath of office, an earthen dam ruptured at a coal-waste storage pond near Kingston, Tennessee, sending a billion gallons of gray-black sludge into the Emory River, destroying homes, killing wildlife, and contaminating the soil and water. It was the second-largest industrial disaster in American history after BP, a flood of waste 100 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Each year, coal plants in the U.S. generate nearly 140 million tons of coal ash, a toxic sludge laced with chemicals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury. Disposal of the ash is regulated – when it is regulated at all – by state laws, most of which are weak and filled with loopholes. For decades, the industry has poured the toxic sludge into lagoons and mines, used it to pave roads and fertilize crops, even recycled it into bowling balls and toothpaste. There are currently more than 1,000 sites that store coal ash in 35 states, and the vast majority of them are unmonitored. According to the EPA, residents who live near unlined ash ponds run a risk of cancer from arsenic contamination 2,000 times greater than federal standards permit.

None of this is any secret to EPA chief Lisa Jackson. At her confirmation hearing in 2009, just a few weeks after the Kingston spill, she was asked what she would do to protect the public from coal-waste pollution. Jackson suggested that it was time for the EPA to step in and issue new rules for disposal of the toxic waste. "The EPA currently has, and has in the past, assessed its regulatory options," she said. "I think it is time to re-ask those questions." Three years later, the EPA is still dragging its feet. New rules have been proposed to treat coal ash as "special waste" – jargon for "hazardous" – and subject it to stricter standards. But Jackson says the new regulations can't be finalized this year because the agency has to sift through 450,000 public comments submitted by opponents and advocates. It's a lame excuse for inaction – one that puts the public at risk.

"Obama needs to tackle this issue head-on," says Lisa Evans, a senior attorney at Earthjustice who has been involved in the fight over coal ash for more than a decade. "Allowing the proposal to languish is harming communities where the ash is disposed, and it is harming the coal-ash recycling industry, which needs regulatory certainty about how this material will be handled in the future."

SIX: Hang Tough on Fuel Standards
In July, Obama announced that the administration has reached an agreement with the auto industry that would nearly double fuel standards to 54 miles per gallon by 2025. Environmental advocates hailed it as the biggest step ever taken to reduce American dependence on foreign oil and cut planet-warming pollution. "If we can lock in these gains," says David Friedman, a clean-vehicles researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "it's a huge, huge deal."

The key word is "if." Although automakers have agreed to the new standards in principle, the rules could be festooned with loopholes before they are finalized next year. Obama needs to insist on three key elements. First, vehicles should not be granted fuel exemptions for supposedly "green" moves like installing cleaner air conditioners. Second, cars with four-wheel drive should be required to meet the new standards, rather than being classified as trucks. And third, automakers must not be given a pass for developing electric vehicles. As it stands now, electric cars count as zero-emission vehicles, even though most aren't. "The electricity that powers electric cars has to come from somewhere," says Dan Becker, head of the Safe Climate Campaign. "In many states, it comes from burning coal. That certainly creates greenhouse-gas pollution." If electric vehicles take off, we could end up substituting coal for oil – undercutting the environmental impact of the new fuel standards before they even take effect.

SEVEN: Make Conservation Patriotic

Ever since Jimmy Carter asked americans to put on a sweater and turn down the thermostat, the idea of taking voluntary steps to reduce energy consumption has been seen as something of a joke. In fact, conservation and improved efficiency measures are not only the simplest ways to cut our energy use – they're also the least expensive. Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has long argued that it's eight times cheaper on average to save a kilowatt of electricity than it is to make one.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama was nearly laughed off the campaign trail when he floated the idea that keeping car tires properly inflated should be part of a national plan for energy conservation. Turns out he was right: California now requires repair shops to check the tire pressure on every car they service – a move projected to save motorists 75 million gallons of gasoline every year.

As president, Obama should act immediately to make energy efficiency a patriotic cause. Create a Climate Corps, modeled on Teach for America, to inspire college kids to spend their summers installing insulation in old homes and buildings. Pass out compact fluorescent light bulbs at every public appearance. Convince the cast of True Blood to wage an ad campaign against "energy vampires" – electronic devices like DVD players that continually suck up small but significant amounts of electricity. Decree that the federal government buy only hybrids and electric vehicles, and that all federal buildings be equipped with energy-saving lights. Park Air Force One once in a while and take Amtrak – or ride a bike. Write a children's book about why wasting energy is bad.

EIGHT: Give Fish a Chance
Our addiction to fossil fuels is making the world's oceans more acidic – which in turn makes it harder for marine life to thrive and reproduce. But there is a simple step that Obama can take to protect the oceans: Issue an executive order establishing strategic "fish production zones." Fishing would be prohibited in the zones, helping to boost the world's population of fish, dolphins, whales, sea turtles and even seabirds. "Many fish populations remain deeply depleted, resulting in lost jobs and depressed fishing communities," says Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute. "But just as you can't have only retail stores – you need factories to produce what will go into those stores – we need to have places in the ocean where fish can grow big, breed prolifically and then disperse to stock nearby fishing areas."

Even George W. Bush understood the need to restock the pond: To his credit – and reportedly over the strenuous objections of Dick Cheney – he created three new marine reserves before he left office. Obama should go much further, creating production zones that cover 20 percent of U.S. waters. "Studies show that this works," says Safina. "And it works best if the reserves – the fish-producing factories – are large."

NINE: Pardon Tim DeChristopher
Back in 2008, as the Bush administration was scrambling to open up millions of acres of federal land to oil and gas drilling, DeChristopher staged a daring act of civil disobedience, posing as a bidder to disrupt a federal auction that would have damaged wilderness areas like the Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah. For this, the 29-year-old activist was sentenced in July to two years in federal prison. Obama has since declared many of Bush's last-minute leases invalid. Now he should make a small but important symbolic gesture by pardoning DeChristopher, sending a signal that a citizen- activist should not be singled out for punishment when the government itself disrespects the rule of law. "If Nixon can pardon Haldeman," asks Wendy Abrams, founder of a global-warming project called Cool Globes, "why can't Obama pardon DeChristopher?"

TEN: Use the Bully Pulpit
Ever notice how often the phrase "climate change" pops up in Obama's speeches? Not much – only 20 times in the past year, and fewer than half as many as the year before. The president has failed to make a big issue-defining speech on global warming, failed to defend the climate scientists being attacked by Big Oil, and failed to blast congressional climate deniers like Sen. James Inhofe, who shamelessly and stupidly dismiss global warming as a "hoax."

In fact, Obama's refusal to speak out on the risks and moral obligations of climate change may well be his biggest failure as president. "He has been silent on the defining issue of our time, letting Big Oil and the deniers define the debate," says Joe Romm, a leading climate advocate who served as assistant energy secretary under Bill Clinton. "In some sense, he has been a bigger failure than Bush – because Obama knows better. He knows exactly what is at stake."

Insiders insist the president is running a "stealth campaign" on climate change, quietly going after coal and oil by tightening air-pollution and fuel-efficiency standards. But Obama alone has the power to elevate global warming to the forefront of the international agenda, where it belongs. He must use his remarkable rhetorical skill to explain to the world that the fossil-fuel era is coming to an end – and inspire us all to take action, no matter what the cost. "Obama needs to make a decision," Romm says. "Does he want to be remembered as the president who had the best chance of taking action on climate – but who failed to stop the catastrophe?"

This story is from the September 29, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1140: September 29, 2011