Obama prepares for heavy lifting on climate, energy fronts

Five weeks into his term and President Obama's fingerprints are already well established on the nation's energy and environmental policies.

U.S. EPA and the Justice Department have launched a new spate of lawsuits against the electric utility industry for alleged Clean Air Act violations. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton went to Asia last week in search of a bilateral agreement on climate change that could help break a key U.S.-China impasse over greenhouse gas emission reductions.

And the new administration helped broker a $790 billion economic stimulus bill that top White House energy and environmental aide Carol Browner declared "the largest energy bill in the history of our country."

"He's off to a very fine start," said former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who chaired the House Science Committee from 2001-2006.

During his presidential campaign, Obama elevated energy and climate issues to the top of his platform like no other winning candidate had done before. Now in his second month in the White House, expectations remain high that he will stick to that agenda. Obama's inaugural address to Congress tonight will be a big test to see if he wants to spotlight these issues during his first year in office.


All indications are Obama will have help in moving an energy and environmental agenda on Capitol Hill. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have already started working on energy and global warming bills that they say will see floor votes early this year. While the size and scope of the measures remain a work in progress, many close observers see Obama notching victories on these issues, even amid an economic meltdown not seen in the United States since the Great Depression.

In an interview yesterday, former President Bill Clinton predicted Obama would be able to sign global warming legislation during his first term that sets mandatory limits on heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. "We've moved a long way, so yes, I think they're going to get a good bill," Clinton said, explaining that U.S. politics have changed since a 95-0 Senate vote in 1997 that blocked him from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.

Low-hanging fruit

Obama's early moves have largely centered around reversing or implementing long-stalled environmental policies from the Bush administration. For example, Browner said Sunday that the administration was looking to set a nationwide climate policy for motor vehicles that ties together a California-led state effort with federal implementation of a 2007 energy law that called for the first changes in fuel economy in more than three decades.

EPA is also preparing a response to the Supreme Court's April 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision in ordering a new study on the connection between climate changing emissions and threats to public health. "There's a backlog they have to clear out," said Kenneth Green, a scholar on environmental issues at the American Enterprise Institute.

John McNeill, an environmental history and foreign policy professor at Georgetown University, predicts Obama will soon find himself in uncharted, and maybe even unfriendly waters. "At some point, the low hanging fruit will be exhausted," McNeill said. "Then, action on the environmental front will probably grind to a halt because the harder things will require more attention from higher-level people and nobody higher than the EPA administrator is going to have much interest or time to spend for it to be given the priority."

While Obama's interest in environmental issues does not appear to be a passing fancy, he still faces considerable skepticism that he can pull off everything he has promised. "He asked for high expectations during the campaign," McNeill said.

Several Republicans are questioning whether the new administration can accomplish its agenda without all of its key personnel in place. "The funding is one thing, but the bureaucratic muscle needed to get things done is another," Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) said of the money in the economic stimulus package that must be distributed under law over the next one to three months.

"You can't undervalue or under appreciate the amount of work it took to get that to move," added Andrew Wheeler, the former Republican staff director on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "They've done a lot of upfront work. But this stimulus is going to consume much more time from the administration than people realize."

To be sure, Obama has been staffing up his administration to implement the stimulus bill, including naming point people in each agency who are responsible for distributing billions of dollars for everything from energy to water and highway projects.

High expectations

So how does Obama's first five weeks measure up?

James Connaughton, former President George W. Bush's chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the policies and laws enacted during Obama's brief tenure in office deserve mixed reviews. "It's all over the map from the very good to the very bad," Connaughton said, explaining his disappointment that the stimulus law left out incentives for nuclear power and did not waive the National Environmental Policy Act on new infrastructure projects.

"It's been fascinating to watch," Connaughton added. "With inconsistencies in between."

The new administration has also come under fire for not living up to the high ethical and transparency standards it pledged to follow during the campaign. One former White House aide under President George W. Bush questioned Obama's decision to forgo his own ethics rules by hiring William Lynn, a former Raytheon lobbyist, as deputy secretary of Defense.

"Being president has turned out to be much harder than it looked on paper," the former staffer said. "The Messiah is standing ankle deep in water that he was walking on."

Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, sees inconsistencies in Obama's pledge to lower greenhouse gas emissions while boosting domestic energy production. "Either the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, or these are just politically motivated decisions," he said.

Obama's supporters brush off the complaints and mistakes. "Unrealistic expectations are built up in the minds of each individual," Boehlert said. "He's not a miracle worker. He is, after all, human. I have to believe if you cut him, he'd bleed just like the next person. There are going to be glitches along the way. Never before has there been a change in administration without some glitches."

And the administration's supporters counter that the new president has made significant progress on energy and environmental issues in a short period of time.

"They ran on a very strong platform, in particular, on global warming," said Steven Biel, Greenpeace's global warming campaign director. "He was very clear during the campaign this would be a top priority. And he won by a big margin and he's moving forward on what he said he's going to do. Anyone who's surprised by what he's doing wasn't paying attention during the campaign."

Reporters Noelle Straub and Eric Bontrager contributed.

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.