President Obama’s Environmental Legacy

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

In September 2016, the U.S. and China stepped forward together to sign and ratify the Paris Climate Agreement, a profound act by the world’s two leading greenhouse gas emitters to hold themselves, and each other, accountable. A couple of months later, in November 2016, the Agreement came into force, committing all nations who signed and ratified it to act on climate change by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and to take the steps necessary to adapt to its negative impacts. These crucial moments in the waning years of Barack Obama’s presidency will be seen as hallmarks of his environmental legacy, and for some, may have redeemed the United States in the eyes of the world for not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol of the early 2000s and thus stalling international progress on climate change.

However, the Paris Agreement is not and should not be the whole story for President Obama. The existence of, or the need to act on, climate change was the subject of public debate in the early years of his presidency. But now, President Obama, as he stated in an interview with the New York Times in September 2016, is not so concerned about how Americans perceive climate change:

I think we’ve solidified in popular opinion the fact that climate change is real, that it’s important, and we should do something about it. So the problem is not that people don’t believe in climate change. There are pockets of resistance, particularly in certain congressional caucuses. [But] if you talk to the average person, they understand that it is something serious and that we should do something about it.

And President Obama can hang his hat on changed perceptions of climate change from a matter of opinion to a matter of fact. In a 2015 survey issued by the University of Michigan’s National Surveys on Energy and the Environment, findings showed that more than 70% of Americans believe and support the evidence of climate change. Even a majority of Republicans (56%) were in agreement that climate change is happening, a marked increase from previous surveys. The most substantial finding of the survey was that only 16% of Americans believed it was not happening, the lowest recorded percentage in the history of the survey (dating back to 2008). While the survey did not ask why the climate was changing and if it could be attributed to anthropogenic sources, more and more Americans at the very least are more certain that global temperatures are rising and that climate change is causing an increase in the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events.

However, in a presidency marked by persistent and often pernicious opposition by congressional Republicans, “translating concern into action” has been the President’s greatest challenge when it has come to environmental issues. So, in these final days before President Obama leaves office, it seems appropriate to comment on the most substantial environmental accomplishments of his presidency – which span issues such as oil and gas exploration, use of public lands, and air and water quality.

Clean Power Plan – “a moral obligation

In August 2015, President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the Clean Power Plan – imposing national standards that directly address carbon emissions from power plants. More specifically, the plan aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electrical power generation by 32% from 2005 levels within 25 years, targeting primarily the least efficient coal- and oil-burning power plants and promoting an increase in energy conservation and renewable energy production. The Clean Power Plan would require states to meet specific standards and submit emissions-reduction plans to the EPA by September 2016, otherwise the EPA will implement its own plan for that state. The EPA estimated that the Plan would reduce pollutants contributing to soot and smog by 25%, produce net climate and health benefits of $26-45 million, prevent heart attacks, asthma attacks, and premature deaths, and create 30% more renewable energy generation in 2030.

The Plan was met with immediate opposition from conservatives and the fossil fuel industry, who argued that the Plan was illegal and a clear overstep of the EPA’s legal authority. Within two weeks of the announcement, 27 states petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for an emergency stay. In February 2016, the Supreme Court halted the enforcement of the Plan in a 5-4 decision until a lower court could rule in the lawsuit against the Plan. The case has since been heard in the D.C. Circuit, and will likely be decided in the Supreme Court in 2017.

While the Plan, seen by many as the United States’ most assertive action against climate change, is currently not in enforcement, it marked a clear effort by the Obama administration to shift energy production away from fossil fuels such as coal to low-carbon and renewable energy. More importantly, the Clean Power Plan would be a major step forward in helping to meet America’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. Some states have since opted to voluntarily meet the Plan’s requirements. Even if the plan does not survive the courts or is abandoned by the incoming Trump administration, it has sparked debate and action that in time may show a marked change in America’s energy landscape.

Conservation Efforts – National Monuments, Pipeline Projects, and Arctic Oil Exploration

During the course of his administration, President Obama designated 29 new national monuments (including another three this past Tuesday), which cumulatively protect about 553 million acres of land and water deemed of natural and/or cultural significance. While the president did not pay special attention to conservation efforts during his first term as President, he has since rebounded in his second term – protecting over three times as much federal land and water from development as any previous U.S. president.

In 2008, a proposal was submitted by the TransCanada Corporation to expand the existing Keystone Pipeline (more commonly referred to as the Keystone XL proposal). If completed, the pipeline would transport crude oil from Alberta, Canada, through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, and join existing Keystone pipelines to transport the oil further south to oil refineries. The Keystone XL proposal drew substantial criticism and opposition from environmentalists and some members of U.S., citing risks of oil spills and higher greenhouse gas emissions from Canada’s tar sands. After repeated revisions and lengthy reviews of the proposal, President Obama ultimately rejected the pipeline after more than six years of review.

In a similar and more recent controversy, construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) faced staunch opposition and physical protest from Meskwaki and Sioux tribal nations (particularly the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux) when pipeline owner and operator Dakota Access, LLC sought easement near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The DAPL posed similar environmental risks as the Keystone XL pipeline, including potential impacts on wildlife and farming. Tribal nations argued that the pipeline would threaten their way of life and damage sites of cultural, religious and historic significance. In December 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers decided not to grant the easement, securing a victory for tribal nations, environmentalists, farmers and civil rights groups.

While the Keystone XL and DAPL decisions by the Obama administration may be overturned by the incoming Trump administration, one decision that will likely survive the next four years will be President Obama’s recent ban on arctic oil drilling and exploration. Using the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, President Obama turned to a pre-existing five-year moratorium in the Atlantic a comprehensive ban that protects hundreds of millions of acres from off-shore oil and gas drilling (including the Pacific coast, at least until 2022). The White House has stated that the restrictions will be indefinite, as the 1953 act protects such actions from being undone by an incoming President (though it’s not certain if Congress could do so).

This ban, alongside a number of other moves by the administration to protect public lands, cements a positive and enduring legacy of conservation by President Obama. The Arctic drilling ban, in particular, also reinforces this administration’s conscious efforts to shift the American energy landscape away from oil and coal.

Fuel Efficiency and Transportation Standards

Towards the end of his first-term, the Obama administration established “groundbreaking” fuel efficiency standards, which would increase the fuel economy for cars and light-duty trucks to 54.5 miles-per-gallon (mpg) by Model Year 2025 (measured at the fleet level). These were accompanied by incentives programs to adopt electric, hybrid and natural gas vehicles. According to the Obama administration, the move would “nearly double the fuel efficiency of those vehicles compared to new vehicles currently on our roads” would reduce American oil consumption by nearly 12 billion barrels.

More recently, in August 2016, the Obama administration established new fuel-economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles, including large trucks and buses, which account for nearly 20 percent of fuel consumption and carbon emissions from transportation. The new mandate obligates heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans to become 2.5% more efficient each year between 2021 and 2027, and requires other vehicles (e.g., tractor-trailers, delivery trucks, and school buses) to reduce their carbon emissions and fuel consumption by 25% from existing standards.

Clean Energy

In addition to the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration made other substantial strides to boost the viability and use of clean and renewable energy technologies in the United States. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (AKA Stimuus Package), one of President Obama’s first acts as President, was enacted in response to the Great Recession of 2007-09. However, one of the most substantial components of the act was nearly $90 billion of investment in energy infrastructure, energy efficiency and renewable energy research and investment, and transportation. Particular investments included designated appropriations for public transportation systems, increasing energy efficiency in federal buildings, and direct financial support for the renewable energy industry.

More recently, in September 2016, the administration unveiled it’s National Offshore Wind Strategy, part of its greater Climate Action Plan of 2013. The Strategy calls for substantial investments in offshore wind farm construction, with a vision for wind farms off of nearly every American coastline by 2050. The administration says the move would generate about 86 GW of electricity, enough to power more than 23 million homes.

And lastly, since 2009, the Obama administration has issued 44 new or updated appliance standards in an effort to reduce energy use from all U.S. buildings.

A Legacy of Environmental Progress

There is certainly ongoing debate about whether or not President Obama could have done more for the environment (especially during his first term), and it is uncertain how much of the progress made might be undone by Donald Trump’s administration. In the “Where Does Your Candidate Stand on the Environment?” series, we covered many of the assertions and claims made on behalf of now President-elect Trump regarding his denial of climate change, his promises to support coal and gas, and desire to withdraw from the UN climate commitments and the Paris Agreement. Whether or not much of that will come to pass in the next four years remains to be seen, as we’ve discussed and will continue to cover in the Hixon Center’s “Our Uncertain Climate Future” series. However, even bigger questions loom about lacking national, public dialogue on climate change, as I discussed in a previous article about the Climate Blackout.

Regardless, the last eight years have seen tremendous progress for the environment and for climate action, cementing President Obama’s environmental legacy. While many of us will look back on President Obama as a leader whose presidency was defined by the Affordable Care Act and moves toward civil rights and equality for many groups around the country, we would do wrong by his legacy if we were to forget what he did for the environment.