Obama and Climate Change

January 15, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

President Obama has prided himself as a liberal hero of sorts. From commuting sentences of non-violent prison offenders to supporting marriage equality, the president’s supporters have stood by him as a true liberal bent on reforming American society and values. When it comes to climate change and the environment, many of the president’s backers continue to remain firm, and why not. President Obama touts his record on climate issues boasting to be a champion of the environment. Before he came to office, one of his key agendas was curbing global warming and, more broadly, climate change.

Keeping with this trend, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced this week, under the direction of the president that it will begin to cut methane gas emissions from commercial producers. According to the EPA: 

“The U.S. is also now the largest natural gas producer in the world…Continuing to rely on these domestic energy resources is a critical element of the President’s energy strategy. At the same time, methane – the primary component of natural gas – is a potent greenhouse gas, with 25 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Methane emissions accounted for nearly 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, of which nearly 30 percent came from the production transmission and distribution of oil and natural gas.”

The EPA will cut methane emissions from oil and gas industries by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. Despite the fact that emissions from these industries have decreased since the 1900s, the EPA notes that “emissions from the oil and gas sector are projected to rise more than 25 percent by 2025 without additional steps to lower them” – warranting prudent action.

Despite the EPA’s announcement this week as well as other measures announced by the administration, some are not so convinced about the president’s record on climate change. In a scathing critique in late 2013 of the president’s climate action, environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, offered up points where the president has succeeded on rhetoric but has failed to deliver on the policy side.

Noting that coal exports are at record highs, McKibben highlighted a speech the president gave drawing negative parallels to the infamous 47 percent moment during the Romney White House campaign in 2012 – in other words, the Obama speech was meant to not be heard by climate warriors. McKibben quoted the president as saying in 2012, “Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quad­rupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some.”

Piling on, McKibben pointed out that the Obama administration considerably increased offshore drilling days before the BP oil spill, the administration permitted drilling operations in the Arctic despite record melting measurements, and the coal auctioned by the Bureau of Land Management in 2013 was projected to equate carbon emissions from 109 million cars.

In regards to the battle against the coal-fired plants the Obama administration waged, McKibben contends the fight was already over by the time the administration threw its hat in the ring. “[T]he battle against new coal-fired power plants was really fought and won by environmentalists. Over the past few years, the Sierra Club and a passel of local groups managed to beat back plans for more than 100 new power plants.”

The president has done well to beat back skeptics, however. Additional measures have been taken since McKibben’s literal dissent. Notably, the Supreme Court last term bucked the authority of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, a major priority of the president’s. In a somewhat convoluted final decision, the Court ruled in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA “five to four to reject EPA’s broadest view of its power over greenhouse gas emissions, but the Justices voted seven to two to allow EPA to impose air pollution control strategy on many of the power plants and other fixed sources of greenhouse gases.” The Court’s double ruling continued to pit conservative climate change challengers against liberal climate change champions. Despite rebuking what many deem as executive overreach in the president’s plan to regulate greenhouse gasses, the Court did permit the EPA to regulate “greenhouse gas emissions from industries already required to get permits for other air pollutants. Those generally are the largest power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities responsible for most such emissions.”

For opponents, the decision was viewed as a precursor to the prospective rules to cut carbon emissions. Announced last June, the EPA will “Cut carbon emission from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels…Cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide by more than 25 percent.” The plan, unlike this week’s announcement regarding methane emissions, received harsh criticism from Republicans who dislike overregulation as they view it as a jobs killer. Surprisingly, top Republicans from Congress’s environment committees were silent this week regarding the EPA’s plan to limit methane emissions.

In spite of the criticism President Obama has received from climate change opponents in one corner, and passionate environmentalists such as McKibben in another, he has tried as of late to raise the issue of climate change on the world stage. One of the key arguments against climate change mitigation levels is that it kills jobs (war on coal) and since major polluting countries such as India and China are not taking necessary measures to mitigate their pollution, why should the US? The president did, however strike a deal with China, albeit non-binding, late last year to address such issues, though, as some in the McKibben camp would argue, the deal does not do much and is simply symbolic. Among other things, China will “peak CO2 emissions around 2030, with the intention to try to peak early, and to increase the non-fossil fuel share of all energy to around 20 percent by 2030,” while the US will “double the pace of carbon pollution reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average during the 2005-2020 period to 2.3-2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025,” to meet the president’s goal of “cut[ing] net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.” Critics believe the deal allows China to continue polluting apace until 2030 while supporters believe China’s recognition of the problem is a great stride forward. As the Wall Street Journal noted, this week’s methane emissions announcement allows the US to honor their commitment under the China deal and “bring political momentum to a United Nations summit this year where world leaders will decide whether to create a new climate agreement.”

Washington is full of rhetoric these days and void of much policy. It is difficult for the president to do much of anything with a gridlocked Congress and with talk of impeachment over alleged unconstitutional executive action to work around the gridlock. The president is still viewed as a climate change hero likely because the issue has only come to the forefront during the last ten years. Critics and supporters alike have legitimate qualms regarding his record on the subject but in the end – for supporters of positive climate change mitigation steps – isn’t some action better than avoiding the issue altogether?