Is Obama Bad for the Environment?

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Amid a floundering economy and a looming re-election battle, the environment is going to come second for President Obama

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Since the announcement, the White House has tried to make the case that issuing new ozone regulations in 2011 would be unnecessary and confusing because the rules are automatically up for review in 2013 under the Clean Air Act. But the EPA, which could have been free under the law to issue new rules now and then, postpone the next review until 2016. In any case, chances are it will take well past 2013 for new rules to actually make it into practice — after all, the EPA is already years past its last deadline.

In a conference call after the announcement, one White House official tried to reassure reporters that the decision "had nothing to do with politics," but that's frankly ludicrous. This decision came from Obama, and he chose to overrule his EPA and disregard science in favor of a political goal — in this case, giving business a break at a time when the economy is floundering and his opponents are trying to paint him as a job-killing bureaucrat. Greens — and the 4,300 people the stronger regulations were predicted to save per year — were left in the cold. "President Obama has come down on the side of the polluters and those extreme forces who deny the value of government safeguards," wrote Natural Resources Defense Council president Frances Beinecke after Obama's announcement.

Of course, those "extreme forces" happen to include virtually the entire Republican Party, including all the major GOP presidential candidates, many of whom would be happy to eliminate the EPA altogether. And that puts the greens in a political quandary — they may be extremely unhappy with Obama, but a Republican victory in 2012 would be an environmental catastrophe. Withdraw their support from Obama, and they'll only be shooting themselves in the foot.

It's hard to see any environmental group actually campaigning against Obama, even after the ozone and oil-sands disappointments, although the effect could be felt in fundraising and grassroots enthusiasm. And Obama has still done a lot for greens, from ambitious new fuel-economy standards to unprecedented funding for alternative energy — not to mention the fact that the President, unlike most of his GOP opponents, actually accepts the reality of climate change. But the events of the past few weeks drive home an unhappy fact: amid a floundering economy and a scarily tight re-election battle, the environment is going to come second for the White House.

Worst of all, there doesn't seem to be much that greens can do about it. More than 1,000 people were arrested over the course of the two-week-long protests over the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline, engaging in what the writer and activist Bill McKibben called the "largest civil-disobedience action in the environmental movement in a generation." While the protests were going on, reporters asked White House press secretary Jay Carney whether Obama was even aware of the demonstrations going on outside his home. Carney said he didn't know. The President's attention is somewhere else.

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