XV. Obama’s Mixed Record on the Environment (continued)

On mountaintop removal (MTR), the EPA has had a mixed record under President Obama: it called for a timeout last fall on MTR permits; then approved a mine site in West Virginia; and then vetoed the largest proposed MTR site in the country.

In a presidential campaign appearance in Lexington, Kentucky in August 2007, Obama said, “We’re tearing up the Appalachian Mountains because of our dependence on fossil fuels.” Also in 2007, he told the group, Appalachian Voices: “Strip-mining is an environmental disaster.” “We shouldn’t be blowing the tops off mountains.” But in a campaign appearance in Florida he said only that he had serious concerns about mountaintop removal. Instead, he stressed his dedication to clean coal.

On June 11, 2009, the Obama White House said it is “doing all we can under existing laws and regulations to curb the most environmentally destructive impacts for Appalachian mining operations, including some mountaintop mines.”

The EPA recently approved 42 permits for Appalachian mining operations, including some mountaintop mines.

One action the Obama White House has taken is to limit the Corps of Engineers use of “nationwide permits” in approving coal mine operations.

Mountaintop removal mining produces less than five percent of the electricity produced by coal combustion, which supplies about half of the electricity used in the United States.

Atmospheric carbon is now at 392 ppm (parts per million): the safe level is 350 ppm maximum, according to the consensus view of climate scientists.

Other environmentally unfriendly actions the Obama administration has taken is to open up 2.35 billion tons of new coal mining in Western states and draining half of a $6 billion fund to provide loan guarantees for cutting-edge wind, solar ad other renewable energy projects.

President Obama’s environmental record has been labeled as mixed, because he has taken some environmentally sound actions. Besides the curbs on mountaintop removal mining put on by the EPA and the limits placed on the Corps of Engineers in issuing coal mining permits, the Obama administration has achieved significant agreements on automotive fuel efficiency. Passenger cars and light trucks must get 34.5 miles per gallon in the period 2012 – 2016 and 54.5 miles per gallon in the period 2017 – 2025. Yet other important achievements are the clamping down on pollution from power plants and the setting of a national standard for mercury, a toxic metal.

What Should Obama Do or Have Done?

President Barack Obama’s watchword on environmental policy should have been the wise counsel offered by the previously referenced Jack A. Smith, who said that America must be transformed into “an environmentally sound society of minimal carbon usage and many other environmental safeguards.

“Such a transformation involves greater government investment, potentially smaller profits for many years, strategic alteration in the country’s disproportionate consumption of resources, and substantial changes beyond today’s gridlocked and essentially conservative political process.”

Obama probably could have met the challenge of investing more in renewable energy, as he proposed in his 12-year plan, but the prospect of smaller profits for many years would likely have scared him off. He also showed a deregulatory streak in him when he backed off for imposing more stringent restrictions on smog.

In regard to smog, President Obama should have gone with the recommendation of the EPA’s scientific advisers on how strict the standard should be. He could have reduced the cost factor by extending the time period by which the standard must be met.

Mountaintop removal causes ecological devastation even when a nearby stream is not involved. The small percentage of the nation’s coal derived from mountaintop removal mining should have eased an Obama decision to call for a ban on such mining.

Rather than opening up more waters to offshore drilling, Obama would have been better off sticking to  his campaign position of urging leaseholders to develop their existing leases. Again, as is the case with the small impact of mountaintop removal mining on the nation’s coal supply, offshore drilling adds very little to the world’s supply of oil.

As a model for causing less harm to the environment in meeting the nation’s need for energy, President Obama should look to California’s ambitious Renewable Portfolio Standard, which calls for utilities to purchase a third of their power from renewable sources by 2020; currently 20 percent comes from renewables. At the end of 2010, the entire country had just 1,000 megawatts of solar energy installed.

Beyond Coal’s Vanessa Pierce says that the wind industry already employs more people than does the coal industry in the United States; furthermore, the cost of wind energy is almost unbeatable: three cents per kilowatt-hour versus an average of four cents for coal.

Finally, according to a study by the Center for American Progress, just four percent of the $100 billion in combined 2008 profit of the big five in fossil fuel energy production went to renewable or alternative energy ventures. Incentives can be provided to invest more of that money into renewable and alternative energy types of ventures.

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