Obama v. EPA: Constructing His Environmental Legacy


In the wake of Lady Thatcher’s passing, it’s good to remember that TINA (there is no alternative) is a miscreant. Of course another world is possible. It was in Thatcher’s UK, as it is in Obama’s America. Case in point: had the Green Party’s Jill Stein been elected president last November, we’d be hip deep in a struggle over radical ecological-economic restructuring in the US. Instead, we’re stuck with a president who overrules his own Environmental Protection Agency because he’s afraid to stand up to yahoos in Congress and to his and their fossil fuel industry campaign funders.

Physician Stein, and her running mate, anti-poverty advocate Cheri Honkala, ran on the party’s proposal for a Green New Deal (GND). It has four main planks: (1) an economic bill of rights; (2) a green transition program; (3) real financial reform; (4) and reforms to ensure a functioning democracy. The economic bill of rights includes full employment (the right to a job), a living wage, protection for union organizing, universal single payer health care, affordable housing, affordable utilities and tax reform. The Green Transition entails making new jobs green jobs, support for small green businesses, and investment in green energy and technology research.

Real financial reform requires reduction in homeowner and student debt loads, democratic reform of the Fed, restoration of Glass-Steagall, derivatives reform, break-up of too-big-to-jail banks, and support for establishment of public-owned banks. Democratic reforms include revoking corporate personhood, a voter’s bill of rights, public financing of campaigns, media democracy, repeal of the Patriot Act and allied intrusions on civil liberties, and deep cuts in the military-industrial-intelligence complex.

Wild and wooly proposals? Crazy left-green fantasies? Hardly. Most GND programs are perfectly in tune with majority public opinion in the United States, unlike Obama and national Democrats’ proposals for cuts to Social Security and veterans’ benefits, support for corporate dominance in all spheres of life from education to energy, and hundred of billions for the endless War on Terror.

We are all painfully aware of the disjuncture between what citizens really want and what they actually end up with from the routine workings of American democracy. This is as clear in energy and environmental policy as elsewhere. Just the other day the EPA delayed release of the long-awaited first-ever greenhouse gas limits on new power plants (the rules for existing plants must now wait even longer). This was the rule made possible by the 2007 Supreme Court decision permitting the EPA to regulate climate change gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The rule as written would’ve (unfortunately) been easily met by plants fired by natural gas, but not those powered by coal. Rather than directly confront the coal industry, the White House buckled over “legal and technical issues” (as if King Coal wouldn’t have sued anyway, as if a battalion of lawyers hadn’t already vetted the rule, and as if the economic benefits, to say nothing of the human health benefits, did not outweigh the costs). This was one of the best means for the administration to flank Congress on climate change—a truly historic opportunity—and it retreated.

Obama’s EPA is capable of smart action when left unmolested by the West Wing. It issued regulations reducing mercury and soot emissions from power plants (saving thousands of lives per year). It required tougher auto emissions standards, better fuel efficiency, and lower levels of sulphur in gasoline (which will help clear the air, improve human and ecosystem health, and contribute to energy security). It forged a climate change adaptation strategy (overdue and critically necessary).

Then there’s the matter of cleanup standards following a nuclear or radiological disaster (whether reactor meltdown or dirty bomb). George Bush relaxed the standards on his way out of town, changes stopped by the incoming Obama administration. Four years later, the Obama EPA put forward draft regulations nearly identical to those of the Bush EPA (new Administrator Gina McCarthy, from whose previous office the regs issued, refused comment on the revised metrics).

The old standards permitted no more than one case of cancer per 10,000 victims (same as Superfund cleanups). The new standards permit as many as one cancer per 23 people exposed to long-term radiation. Supporters of the change point to Fukushima (which contaminated an area the size of Connecticut); it’s infeasible to fully remediate such large areas. Radioactive waste will end up in ordinary municipal landfills. Survivors must live a “new normal” (a term taken from the draft report) haunted by eternal radiation hazards.

Americans, claims Paul Kudarauskas of the EPA Consequence Management Advisory Team, are accustomed to “cleanup . . . perfection” but must abandon their “NIMBY” attitudes in such cases. “People are going to have to put their big boy pants on,” said Kudarauskas, “and suck it up.” How’s that for a chapter in President Obama’s environmental legacy?

Steve Breyman is EPA Administrator in Jill Stein’s new Green Shadow Cabinet. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu


Steve Breyman is a former William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the US State Department.   Steve Breyman teaches energy and environmental policy courses at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He serves as EPA Administrator in the Green Shadow Cabinet.   Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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