THE VINE SEPTEMBER 9, 2009
The Washington Post takes stock of Obama's environmental record to date and finds it pretty lackluster. I don't quite agree. On climate and energy, the administration really has taken some unprecedented steps toward a greener economy—as just one example, the billions for clean tech and efficiency in the stimulus package were an utter break from historical norms and, as this EIA chart shows, are expected to make a dent in the country's carbon emissions (though they're no substitute for a comprehensive climate bill, which, no question, will be the ultimate measuring stick for this administration).
Still, it's true that on other, less-trumpeted issues, from air pollution to protecting roadless forests, the administration has been remarkably restrained so far, taking only cautious steps to reverse some of the major Bush-era decisions. And, on issues like mountaintop-removal mining—a particularly destructive practice that's tearing apart Appalachia—many environmentalists have deemed the Obama EPA an outright disappointment:
In March, the administration said it would reexamine dozens of pending permits for this type of mine, in which Appalachian peaks are blasted off to reach coal underneath. Environmentalists, who said the Bush administration was too lenient with the mines, rejoiced. But weeks later, the federal government reported that 42 of the 48 permits it had examined were within the limits of environmental laws.
"We got cold-cocked," said Rob Perks of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He and other environmentalists are expecting another announcement this week, about the fate of dozens more permits. "That is really a bellwether. What happens with these . . . permits is what's going to tell if the administration is going to really change."
To be sure, the EPA hasn't been totally permissive toward mining: Over the weekend, lost amid the Van Jones frenzy, news broke that the agency was blocking, at least temporarily, the largest strip-mining permit ever granted in West Virginia, on the grounds that the project was fouling up streams in the area and needed better protections in place. But more broadly, the administration has so far taken the view that the damage from surface and mountaintop mining can be contained, if properly overseen.
Sadly, there's growing evidence that even thismoderate view may be off-base—read John McQuaid's excellent piece in Environment 360 on why the federal government's regulatory authority is too fragmented to properly oversee this sort of mining, and on why many ecologists think the damage being done to Appalachia may be irreparable (with cruel consequences for the people in the area). You can see why Obama doesn't want to provoke a brawl with the coal industry, but if there's one place where tensions between green groups and the White House are likely to ignite in the coming years, this is it.