What makes a president green? That question, and the many environmental concerns it raises, casts a harsh light on President Barack Obama and his checkered environmental past. Where does Obama stand on energy - especially clean energy? What about the Keystone pipeline? And fracking, or hydraulic fracturing? What about Obama and global warming and climate change?
Beyond these specific issues, some in the green community are questioning Obama's ability to assume a leadership position on the environment, especially in the face of obstreperous opposition from a dysfunctional Congress and a Supreme Court that's packed with conservative Republican appointees. Take a look at the President's environmental history in this Obama green report card.
Obama and Pollution
In 2011, Obama and the EPA finalized rules that would strictly limit the emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases from coal- and oil-fired power plants. This move was widely viewed as a huge success for environmental and health advocates. Combined with Obama's efforts to increase vehicle efficiency and reduce emissions from other sources, it may be one of the few bright spots in Obama's spotty environmental record.
Why, then, did Obama also back down on an effort to limit levels of dangerous ozone, which contributes to the creation of smog? Critics charge that Obama was making a conciliatory gesture to a conservative business community that places no value on environmental protection -- a tactic that has come to define his administration. Pollution Grade: C+
Obama and Green Jobs
Any discussion of jobs, green or otherwise, must take into account the high unemployment and economic stagnation that's plagued the United States since 2008 -- before Obama took office. And in early 2012, congressional Republicans expanded their investigation into the funding of green jobs programs, citing green job training grants that had reached just a fraction of their job-placement goals.
Though candidate Obama in 2008 pledged to create 5 million new green jobs, even his most enthusiastic supporters have to admit that the reality has fallen far short of the mark. Reason magazine points out that much of the funding for green jobs has to come from the government, and that funding has been woefully inadequate in recent years.
Despite a last-minute push by the Obama administration in 2012 to trumpet its green jobs creation -- and despite the best of intentions -- Obama's record on green jobs creation has been mediocre at best. There are signs of life, however: In December of 2011, Obama announced nearly $4 billion in government and private sector funding for energy-conservation upgrades to federal buildings over the next two years, promising that this initiative would create "tens of thousands of jobs in the hard-hit construction sector." Green Jobs Grade: D+
Obama and Clean Energy
Obama has pushed through a number of clean energy initiatives, investing more than $90 billion in clean energy, according to the White House -- a record-breaking level of investment. Since 2008, over 20,000 megawatts of electric generating capacity has been developed from solar, geothermal and wind energy.
But no discussion of Obama's record on clean and renewable energy is complete without using the word "Solyndra." The solar panel manufacturer received a $535 million U.S. loan guarantee, then defaulted in 2011, throwing thousands of employees out of work. Though there's no evidence that the Obama administration abetted Solyndra's default, it does call into question Obama's ability to follow through on green energy initiatives.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration -- to its credit -- shows no sign of retreating on its commitment to clean energy. Dozens of renewable energy projects on public lands have been approved and funded, including the world's largest solar power plant. Over $4 billion has been invested in upgrading America's aging electric grid, which will increase access to green energy facilities.
Despite some evidence that Obama has a tendency to over-promise and under-deliver on green energy (and many other issues), he continues to earn the respect of clean energy advocates. As he stated in 2012, "I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here." Clean Energy Grade: B+
Obama and Fossil Fuels
Big Oil has enjoyed unprecedented influence over the U.S. government for decades, so it's no surprise that Obama's ability to reverse course has been met with a bulwark of resistance. Though Obama has repeatedly opposed tax breaks and other subsidies for the oil and gas industry, not much has changed since Vice President Dick Cheney invited his petro-cronies to author the nation's energy policy during the Bush administration.
Despite the environmental nightmare caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in 2009, the Obama administration has given a green light to increased oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska and other oil fields. Critics charge that the oil industry still has a lousy track record on safety, and that's not likely to change without a robust mandate from the federal government.
Then there's the Obama administration's continued support for something called "clean coal," which simply doesn't exist outside a coal engineer's pipe dream. Obama is obviously eyeing the electoral votes to be found in coal-producing states, even where mountaintop removal mining is a proven environmental disaster. (Ditto for the administration's continued support for nuclear energy, despite its environmental hazards.) With job growth as Obama's Achille's heel, and the continued stranglehold that oil and gas have over the political process, it appears unlikely that Obama will take a strong stand to wean America off oil anytime soon. Fossil Fuels Grade: C-
Obama and Fracking
After remaining quiet on the contentious issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the Obama administration has come out in favor of the controversial means of extracting natural gas from shale rock. This support comes as part of an "everyone's invited" energy policy that focuses on job creation more than environmental safety, and turns a blind eye to the numerous environmental and health problems caused by fracking.
Perhaps the only bright spot on the fracking horizon will come in the form of an EPA report on hydraulic fracturing; the initial study is due out in 2012, and a final report is expected in 2014. This, however, will probably be too little, too late to reverse the damage to air quality, human health and drinking water supplies. Fracking Grade: F
Obama and the Keystone Pipeline
After much debate, the Obama administration in 2012 decided to delay a decision on the proposed extension of the Keystone pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, passing over the fragile Ogallala aquifer in the process. While this delay could have been an outright denial -- delighting environmentalists -- Obama isn't likely to shut down the pipeline during an election year when unemployment hovers just below 10 percent. Keystone Pipeline Grade: B-
Obama and Conservation
The Obama administration has announced robust new fuel efficiency standards for vehicles that raise average fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. According to the White House, these rules will save roughly 12 billion barrels of oil, and in the process save consumers some $1.7 trillion at the pump. Additionally, environmentalists have applauded the first-ever fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards for commercial trucks, vans and buses have been established for model years 2014-2018.
Obama has also consistently supported improved energy efficiency for homes and other buildings, including government buildings. (Many of Obama's residential initiatives are limited to low-income citizens' homes, however, and don't provide much relief to middle-class consumers.) Conservation Grade: A-
Obama and Global Warming
Global warming and climate change are huge, complex issues, and no single world leader is likely to dominate the issue. Is it fair, then, to criticize Obama for failing to make meaningful progress on this critical problem? Perhaps not: Congress in 2009 failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation that would limit emissions of greenhouse gases and allow companies to buy and sell pollution permits under that cap. Nonetheless, the administration has consistently taken a backseat approach to global warming, leaving it up to others to effectively untie this Gordian knot. Global Warming Grade: D+
Obama's Final Green Grade
There are a number of other issues -- alt-fuel vehicles and electric cars, for example -- that the Obama administration has pledged some level of support for, only to have that support wither under the economic realities that define this era. Despite this, even Obama's most strident critics acknowledge that he has faced unprecedented challenges: a global recession, vast unemployment, and a bloodthirsty Congress that seems hellbent on reducing his leadership to dust. In such an atmosphere, Obama deserves credit for simply staying afloat, even when he appears to be only treading water. Final Green Grade: C+