Is Obama's Environmental Agenda Losing Out?

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(L) Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty ; (R) Chung Sung-Jun / Getty

Ask an Administration official what to expect legislatively this year and the answer will probably fall along these lines: reregulation of the financial markets, followed by the budget, health care and then green jobs. It is a massive agenda for President Barack Obama's first year in office, and already some in the environmental community are worried that their agenda will be sacrificed. Global-warming issues face particularly tough obstacles, especially at a time when the prophets of other crises proclaim more-imminent doomsdays. Obama, says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, "is taking on an awful lot of sacred cows all at once, and these are cows that have sharp teeth and are going to bite back." (What exactly is a green-collar job?)

Already, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman has told environmental groups that while he aims to have the greenhouse-gas legislation they have pushed hard for ready by Memorial Day, he'll be competing with House and Senate working groups aiming to have a health-care-reform bill done at about the same time. (See pictures of how global warming is changing the face of the planet.)

The tanking economy may be a boon for much of Obama's agenda, but not necessarily for the environment. "The existence of a large pool of unemployed people creates, as close as economics ever has, the possibility of a free lunch for economic policy, because it means you can get more stuff by putting people to work," says a top Administration official. "That's why I think there is a lot of potential in this moment." But the same reasoning doesn't work for a global-warming bill. "That would be more complicated," says the official. (See a photo-essay on the beauty of trees and forests.)

The business community, for example, groans under the weight of health-care costs, and so it has a vested interest in the Administration's efforts at health-care reform. The same cannot be said for Obama's plans to cap carbon emissions, which many have argued will amount to an expensive new tax that businesses and consumers can ill afford during such hard times. (See how the U.S. can win the war against global warming.)

Under the Administration's proposed scheme, companies that produce carbon over the cap would buy credit from facilities that have modernized. The additional costs to businesses of the program, however, are more than likely to be passed on to the consumer, amounting to what some argue would effectively be a new tax on ordinary Americans. "That is a massive new tax. It's a tax on energy, and it will flow directly through to the consumer in the form of a national sales tax on their electric bill," Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, said in questioning White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag at a hearing last week of the Senate Budget Committee. After a few minutes of Gregg's grilling, Orszag conceded "there will be increased prices."

As a result, Republicans want to see all revenue brought in from the cap-and-trade system returned to consumers, potentially as tax rebates. Obama, by contrast, would keep 20% to invest in his green-jobs program. Republicans have also said they would not support a bill that does not include money to expand the nuclear industry — something opposed by many Democrats and environmentalists. There is also disagreement over the involvement of other countries in any potential market and how best to help developing nations build up clean technologies.

Despite all those issues, it is still possible that a climate bill could reach the legislative finish line before health care. There is a broad consensus on Capitol Hill that something needs to be done, and Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are anxious to get a bill passed this year. And while the Administration has not held an energy summit as it did for health care, Obama has had an easier time hiring and confirming staff on the environmental front than on the economy or health-care fronts. For example, Obama's special adviser for green jobs, Van Jones, started work at the White House's Council for Environmental Quality on Monday. "There is more action and emphasis than we've ever seen before," says Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Environment Group's Domestic Climate Campaign. "We've seen more commitment from this Congress than we have ever before on global warming."

Still, as members finalize the budget resolution this week, many members have warned that they would oppose ramming the legislation through the budget process. Obama has set aside $656 billion in the budget for his energy and climate-change plans. Depending on how the bill is written, it could leave the door open to include the whole program in the fiscal 2010 budget, a highly unusual move that would strip the bill from the usual committees of jurisdiction and give the program immunity from filibusters in the Senate. "I want them to having hearings. I want to lay it all out and look at it," Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, said on Tuesday in explaining why he opposes the idea.

Just in case, the Obama Administration has taken a separate approach that would allow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to move unilaterally on regulating greenhouse gases, without the need for congressional action. That process, however, is long and subject to court challenge without a legislative mandate. "It appears that the Administration is letting Congress take the lead while the EPA moves forward with welcome steps to combat global warming, like the proposed rules this week to create a registry for carbon-dioxide emissions," says John Walke, clear-air director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "The EPA has been aggressive."

And unilateral Executive Branch action, while mandated by a Supreme Court decision in April 2007 that said the EPA must decide how to regulate greenhouse gases, upsets many members on Capitol Hill. The EPA "said they have the ability to do this under the law. The law doesn't come from the Supreme Court; the law comes from Congress," Nelson said. "If they want to go, 'Giddyap,' we're in the position to go, 'Whoa,' and pass legislation if necessary. If the administrator wants to ignore the intent of Congress, the administrator takes a sizable risk."

Still, as Democrats weigh another bank bailout and a potential second stimulus bill, the global-warming legislation may get knocked another rung down the ladder — a terrible waste of a rare opportunity for dramatic action, in the eyes of U.S. environmentalists still smarting from the Bush Administration's pullout from the Kyoto Protocol. "Right now we have a degree of flexibility [regarding] what we need to do and what other countries are willing to do," says David Doniger, policy director at the NRDC's Climate Center. "That tremendous opportunity may be lost at this moment if this drags on."

Learn about the trouble with green jobs.