When Republican Congressman Joe Wilson yelled out, "You lie!" during President Obama's speech last week, Democrats were outraged at the insult and the break from congressional protocol. Wilson was referring to Obama's remark that no illegal aliens would be covered under the health care reform measures now moving through Congress. But this week, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) launched a campaign called "Obama Watch—Change We Still Need" to track Obama's actions, or lack thereof, on protecting the environment. And while they're not saying the president lied about his commitment to the environment, the record so far is not encouraging.
No one would deny it's been a tough couple months for President Obama. The August congressional recess saw throngs of harsh critics storm town hall meetings to protest his efforts to reform the nation's health care system. Then came the bad news from the top generals on the war in Afghanistan, putting the president in a tough spot trying to decide if continuing George Bush's war is worth it or not—and so far, he hasn't made that call. This week his speech on banking and investment regulatory reform was laughed at by financial experts when Obama threatened no more taxpayer bail-outs for Wall Street—a threat they say he will never be able to carry out.
It would be nice to predict that Obama's stormy waters will calm in the near future, but that doesn't look like it's in the cards, either. Sen. Max Baucus' health reform bill looks to be a loser that will anger the president's supporters while doing little to mollify his critics. To make matters even worse on the international war front, United States forces launched a helicopter and special forces attack in Somalia this week, bringing the U.S. into yet another sphere of deadly conflict and sparking grim memories of our last major effort there—the tragedy of Mogadishu so vividly portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down. The attack, which killed a leader of the al-Shabab group, has already been met with vows of harsh retaliation from its members.
Now, with a plate overflowing with problems and nearly empty of solutions, the Obama administration faces criticism from a credible group of retired and current federal employees who say the president is failing to address serious environmental issues that threaten the long-term health of the nation.
The opening paragraph to the Obama Watch site (www.peer.org) is pretty damning: "A visitor to the White House website for information about eco-policies will not find an 'agenda' for the environment. Instead, the category is 'Energy & Environment' and that ordering appears intentional. Other than curbing greenhouse gases, there is no mention of environmental priorities such as safeguarding clean water, reducing pollution threats to public health, conserving wildlife and protecting vital habitat, averting collapse of marine fisheries, or ending abuse of public lands through practices ranging from mountaintop removal to overgrazing."
Indeed, the group goes on to list a number of areas of concern, including coal, climate change, oil and gas, mining, oceans, forestry, endangered species, parks and refuges, toxics, appointees and whistleblowers. Each section contains examples of what is or isn't happening in regards to both environmental urgency and promises Obama made while campaigning.
The coal section, for instance, notes "central to the Obama energy program is an embrace of more coal" and continues "the Obama team has backed away from promises to restrain the environmental damage wreaked by mountaintop removal coal mining" and "delays taking action to address toxic coal combustion wastes."
On climate change, PEER says, "Obama has embraced a watered-down climate change bill that Dr. Jim Hansen and other experts warn will do too little too late" by using what they call an "unworkable and unenforceable" cap-and-trade approach. Their contention is bolstered by two German ships that, just last week, made the first historic passage through the Northeast Passage from South Korea along Russia's Arctic coast to Siberia—a route now possible only due to severe melting of the Arctic ice cap.
The group outlines a number of concerns with oil and gas development, including approval of a pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands, what they call "the most environmentally destructive petroleum extraction sources," to U.S. refineries. There's also the administration's defense of a Bush plan to lease Colorado's Roan Plateau for drilling and the "drill, baby, drill" plan that leaves "no part of the Outer Continental Shelf or the domestic U.S. off-limits to petroleum production." Nor did the administration object to an Army Corps of Engineers permit that "allows a gold mine to dump its wastes into Alaska's Lower Slate Lake, killing all its aquatic life" while "allowing Bush permits for destructive fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico to go into effect."
Add to that the administration's approval of the "first ever timber sale in a roadless area of Alaska's Tongass National Forest," issuing rules forbidding use of the Endangered Species Act to address habitat loss, "like the shrinking ice shelves on which polar bears depend." There's also the planting of genetically modified crops on National Wildlife Refuges, and "ducking the problem of growing water pollution from oil fracking chemicals and coal-bed methane gas operations."
The group also nails a handful of top level Obama environmental appointees for their "horrid records" and, on an issue near and dear to PEER's heart, outlines a number of Obama's failures to keep his campaign promises to strengthen whistleblower protections when politics trumps policy in government agencies.
All in all, it's a bleak assessment of what we had hoped would be a new era of environmental awareness from the young Obama presidency. Even worse, this is just the start of the "Obama Watch" on the environment.
There's no doubt President Obama has his plate full of thorny issues. But neither this country nor its citizens can survive without the healthy environment he promised us. Holding him accountable to those promises, as PEER is doing, is absolutely the right thing to do.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.