POLITICS:

As energy initiatives stall on Hill, Obama reshapes regulatory landscape

President Obama has copied the page from his predecessor's playbook on how to push an energy and environment agenda.

Whether intentionally or not, Obama's tactics have mirrored President George W. Bush's: Try to work with Congress, but also act unilaterally.

Their agendas are near-polar opposites. Bush pushed fossil energy development and rolled back Clinton-era environmental policies. Obama is pushing a battle against climate change and is rolling back many of Bush's pro-development initiatives.

But their circumstances are strikingly similar. Both proposed big energy legislation early in their first terms, only to see it bog down in Congress. And each turned to the vast bureaucracy they control, using the regulatory system, appointments and flat-out issuing orders to accomplish their goals.

"As passing major legislation initially has become more difficult, presidents are increasingly turning to their regulatory authority," said Paul Bledsoe, director of communications and strategy at the National Commission on Energy Policy.

Obama's climate and energy bill is stuck in the Senate, but agencies are poised to insert climate and environmental considerations into nearly every decision, from endangered species to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance and even to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Bush found himself in a similar spot. It took him more than four years to pass a watered-down energy bill, and he never passed the "Clear Skies Act" or opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.

While those debates made headlines, Bush reshaped the regulatory landscape to ease the burden on oil and gas drillers and chipped away at air pollution regulations. By 2007, the Bureau of Land Management was issuing twice as many drilling permits as it did during President Clinton's final year in office.

"They went gangbusters on onshore oil and gas," said Dave Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society. "Where they had the opportunity, they certainly grabbed it."

Bush officials also stripped many environmental protections from a hard-rock mining rule written by the Clinton administration, looked at the possibility of oil and gas exploration in national monuments designated by Clinton, sought to trim environmental reviews and took aim at the New Source Review provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Some Republicans, though, consider Bush "timid" on energy issues compared to team Obama. While Obama's climate bill is stalled in the Senate, his EPA is pushing forward with its "endangerment finding," setting the stage for the agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. And his Interior Department has put the kibosh on drilling projects in Montana, Wyoming and Utah.

"This administration has been very active in ways that hurt the West," said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus. Decisions to cancel gas leases on public land, he said, have cost his state jobs at a time when more jobs are sorely needed, he said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has called a two-year "time out" on uranium mining, slowed the pace of oil shale development and required more scrutiny for drillers' requests to look for oil and gas on public lands.

Administration officials stress that they've been consistent in their administrative actions, not reacting to legislative setbacks. They say they've promoted new sources of energy such as solar and offshore wind, and worked to coordinate new electricity transmission.

"We've implemented an energy agenda that includes conventional energy and renewable using authorities granted by Congress, many of them in the 2005 energy bill," said an Interior Department official.

Obama's EPA also has been ambitious, said Jeff Holmstead, a former Bush EPA official now at Bracewell & Giuliani. Beyond the endangerment finding, EPA has finalized a nitrogen dioxide standard, proposed a sulfur dioxide standard, proposed the first-ever greenhouse gas standard on the nation's cars and trucks and opted to revise Bush's ozone rules.

"Usually an administration does one or two of these in eight years," Holmstead said. "They've been much more aggressive."

Downside to unilateral action

Alberswerth, a former Clinton administration Interior appointee, noted that Bush's Bureau of Land Management often didn't even use the regulatory process, which is cumbersome but more reliable than legislation for the administration in power. Instead, appointees simply issued "instructional memoranda." Essentially, those were orders telling BLM field staff to change the way things were done.

Many of Salazar's high-profile moves, he said, have been simply reversing those so-called "IMs."

Salazar's efforts highlight the biggest disadvantage to acting unilaterally. The easier it is to change a policy, the easier it is to reverse it when the other party moves into the White House. Laws passed by Congress and signed by the president last longer and provide more certainty.

"If you're just going to do what you want to do, it is relatively easy to reverse it," Holmstead said. "That's why a lot of people are interested in finding legislative solutions."

On Bush's first day in office, his chief of staff, Andrew Card, signed a memo that froze a host of pending Clinton administration regulations. Among them were the roadless rule intended to block logging and development on nearly 60 million acres of national forests, hard-rock mining rules, and an EPA regulation to lower the permissible levels of arsenic in drinking water.

Many of Clinton's initiatives were easier to stop, environmentalists say, because his administration got a late start. Stung by the 1994 Republican takeover, Clinton had turned away from his most ambitious environmental policies until well into his second term.

That seemed to accelerate Bush's administrative and regulatory changes. Along with Vice President Dick Cheney, a fellow veteran of the oil industry, Bush quickly rolled out a "National Energy Policy" aimed at increasing production. But it took a Republican-dominated Congress until 2005 to pass an energy bill.

The impact of the regulatory and bureaucratic changes that Bush, Cheney and the Cabinet put in place appears to have been noticed by team Obama. After Obama was sworn in, administration officials moved swiftly to turn the ship of state away from Bush's energy agenda.

BLM quickly issued an "IM" requiring approval from headquarters for drilling on "sensitive" lands, a stark shift in emphasis. The proposed endangerment finding was published three months after Obama was sworn in. Eight months later, Salazar declared that oil and gas companies would no longer be "kings of the world" and ordered a series of new reviews for drilling permits.

Said Alberswerth, "They are aware of the discretion that they have."