Obama: The Environmental President?

Written by Ralph E. Stone. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on June 10, 2010 with No Comments

A 1999 British Petroleum advertisement.

By Ralph E. Stone

June 10, 2010

It’s time for President Obama to stand up to Big Energy and get to work on climate change. He has to to get angry, to act, not just react. Already his critics are attempting to paint the BP oil spill as his Hurricane Katrina. Obama should take the initiative and use the oil spill as an opportunity to be the environmental president. I do applaud him for suspending consideration of applications for exploratory drilling for oil in the Arctic until 2011 and extending a moratorium on permits to drill new deep-water wells for six months.

Next, he has to end the cozy relationship between the oil companies and regulators. A good start is his public vow to improve environmental oversight by reviewing how the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) implements the National Environmental Policy Act and endangered species laws. I approve of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s plan to divide MMS, which both regulates offshore drilling and collects billions of dollars in royalties by creating a new offshore environmental and safety agency that will include what had been MMS’s inspection, investigation, and enforcement operations.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court in Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Environmental ProtectionAgency, ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was violating the Clean Air Act for not regulating greenhouse gasses.  The EPA did not finalize its endangerment finding — necessary before it begins regulating the gases — until last December. In a response to this Supreme Court decision, the Senate is poised to vote on Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s resolution to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate carbon pollution, and to hold polluters accountable under the Clean Air Act. The resolution would ignore and override scientific findings and allow big oil companies, big refineries and others, to continue to pollute without any oversight or consequence. Clearly, Obama should publicly oppose this resolution and the Senate should reject Murkowski’s resolution.

In addition, President Obama should send the Kerry-Lieberman proposed American Power Act (APC) back to the drawing board. Why? By meeting behind closed doors, the lawmakers let corporate polluters play too large a role in the APC to the detriment of the climate and consumers. The proposed legislation promotes nuclear energy, oil drilling and coal mining with a weak carbon-pricing mechanism. In addition, it guts the EPA’s current authority to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The proposed legislation fails to give incentives to renewable energy development and energy efficiency investments. For example, Section 1102 of the Act increases loan guarantees primarily for nuclear power to $54 billion, which is a bad deal for taxpayers, especially considering the high-risk of default that even the government acknowledges. Section 1103 provides $6 billion in taxpayer-subsidized risk insurance for twelve nuclear reactors. The Act would expand offshore drilling even in light of the BP oil spill. Section 1412 establishes a carbon tax paid by ratepayers and collected by utilities to fund carbon capture and storage with no money allocated to rooftop solar or energy efficiency investments. The coal industry will eat up most of the subsidies that should go to renewable energy development. In sum, the nuclear and coal industries will receive a lot of taxpayer money and loan guarantees under the Act. Instead, renewable energy should be getting the guarantees.

Also, President Obama should publicly endorse S.1399, sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein, which creates an Office of Carbon Market Oversight at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), giving the agency authority to regulate spot and futures emission markets. It requires all entities seeking to trade emissions derivatives to register and be approved by the CFTC, and all transmissions must be cleared through a CFTC-regulated Carbon Clearing Organization.  S. 1399 ensures that Wall Street plays no role in gambling on climate policy. However, by creating carbon trading markets open to non-energy companies, there is the danger that Wall Street would be positioned to control our climate future. Strong regulations are needed to make sure this does not happen.

The Obama administration should also ensure that those responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill pay the full amount of damage, which includes cleaning up the spill, the economic harm to the coastlines of several states, compensation for lost fisheries, and lost tourism dollars if beaches are fouled. And, of course, there will be the incalculable long-term damage to the environment.

Finally, Obama should take the lead in developing a comprehensive energy policy, not one developed behind closed doors with just big energy in attendance, but open to the public. The energy policy should emphasize investment in alternative energy. And the U.S. must become a full party to the Kyoto Protocol, an international environmental treaty with the goal of achieving “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

By seizing the opportunity, Obama can answer his critics of his response to the BP oil spill. He may even be able to turn lemons into lemonade before the mid-term elections.

Ralph E. Stone

I was born in Massachusetts; graduated from Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School; served as an officer in the Vietnam war; retired from the Federal Trade Commission (consumer and antitrust law); travel extensively with my wife Judi; and since retirement involved in domestic violence prevention and consumer issues.

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