Obama's Compromises on the Environment are as Destructive as Bush's Ignorance

Obama-Biden transition project via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

A somewhat surprising new report shows that the Obama administration has been even more aggressive in rolling back environmental protections than his predecessor. Rachel Cernansky reported on the news this morning, and the gist is this: The Center for Progressive Reform analyzed data gathered from the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) over the last 10 years, and reveals that the Obama administration has entertained an astonishing number of industry lobbyists, after which it often proceeded to weaken an also-astonishing number of environmental rules.

The amount of time spent with lobbyists and the number of slackened regulations each exceed those tallied during the Bush Administration. Under Bush, the Guardian reports that "Environmental regulations made up only 10% of OIRA business ... but 36% of the office's business was meeting with outside lobbyists." Obama's OIRA, by comparison, has spent "51% of its time discussing pending environmental regulations with industry lobbyists". Under Bush, OIRA subsequently weakened 84% of the EPA rules it discussed. Under Obama, it was 85%.

Thus, Obama's office has weakened more environmental protections than Bush did, the report alleges.

How can that be? How did a president who clearly understands climate change, supports serious efforts to reduce pollution, and respects our scientific institutions come to be as ineffective as his predecessor, who did none of the above? In a word, he compromised. Again and again. Pundits can't get enough of this evaluation of the Obama presidency, largely because it's true: Obama is hell-bent on being seen as a great compromiser who can bridge the political divide with his unparalleled reasonableness. Republicans have responded to his proverbial fig leaf by refusing to compromise on anything (see: the debt ceiling debacle, health care reform, anything), in order to make him look foolish and ineffective.

When Republicans refused to vote to extend the debt ceiling unless they got deep federal spending cuts, Obama and the Democrats caved. When industry complained that the proposed EPA rules designed to rein in dangerous ozone pollution were too strict, Obama caved. And so on and so forth. Evidently, this propensity for caving, er, compromising, pertains not just to big federal battles, but the more mundane ones as well. When a lobbyist for the oil company shows up at OIRA's door and complains that a new pollution rule will hurt business, it turns out that more likely than not, he'll at least partially get his way -- and public health and the environment suffer as a result.

Environmentalists loathed Bush for being so cocksure and dismissive on green matters. His administration ignored climate change, opened vast swaths of public land for oil and gas exploration, and repeatedly flew in the face of its own EPA. But Obama's administration has done all of the same things, for different reasons. Where Bush bent the rules with brash, executive authority, Obama did so in the name of comprise. We may be more apt to despise Bush because of his vehement ignorance, his brazen, public flouting of science and common sense. But Obama's measured, hyper-rational demeanor has nonetheless yielded similar results.

By allowing industry to trample him -- Obama is desperate not to seem 'anti-business', a laughable allegation the business community lodged at him to get some leverage -- he has ended up accomplishing very little in the environmental arena, and indeed, taken some backwards steps. Yes, there was the R&D for cleantech in the stimulus bill, and the laudable CAFE fuel efficiency standards. But he's also expanded drilling more than Bush, failed to make any headway at all on pricing carbon emissions, and has leaned on his EPA to delay important regulations. He believes that by making these compromises with industry, he will be seen as a reasonable, bipartisan leader. He is wrong. All that has happened is his opponents have learned that they can get what they want by being obstinate.

That environmentalists have felt let down Barack Obama is no revelation. After getting fed up with all of the above, the biggest green groups in the nation took to threatening not to back his reelection if he approved a tar sands oil pipeline proposed to run through the heart of the midwest. Obama relented, and delayed the pipeline. But the disappointment lingers: a presidency once poised to be the greenest in memory has time and again failed to deliver.

Worst of all, he's not even ignorant. He's just too damn eager to compromise.

Tags: Barack Obama | EPA

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