Obama’s legacy — from A to F
The nation’s environment and energy policy heavyweights weigh in
Published: Thursday, September 15, 2016
President Obama and his team stormed into office almost eight years ago with big ambitions for environment and energy policy.
What the president couldn’t accomplish through legislation, he attempted to push through with beefed-up regulations — including efforts to crack down on greenhouse gases after climate legislation failed and tougher rules for offshore drilling in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, Obama is announcing that he’s using his executive power to unilaterally create the first national monument in the Atlantic Ocean.
For some, his agenda was welcome and overdue. The president’s supporters praise him as one of the strongest environmental champions to inhabit 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But his detractors say Obama’s tenure has been rife with overreach and policies that have put environmental protection ahead of economic health.
Greenwire recently asked energy and environment experts from across the political spectrum — including former government officials, industry representatives, environmentalists and politicians — to weigh in on the environmental successes and failures of the Obama administration. Their responses varied dramatically, with grades ranging from A’s to a “resounding F.”
As the Obama administration prepares its exit, here’s what a dozen insiders said in email responses when asked to give his administration an overall letter grade on its environmental and energy policies and to point to the administration’s biggest accomplishments and biggest disappointments on that front.
Heather Zichal, former deputy assistant to Obama for energy and climate change
Grade: A. How could you not? For a man that has made historic progress in reducing climate pollution not only at home but securing an international commitment to do so … that’s an easy one. And just for added measure he has protected more land and waters than any other sitting president. I think it’s fair to say he is the most consequential environmental president in recent times and future generations will look back and continue to thank him for his dedication.
Biggest accomplishment: Tough call — on international side it is their work with China. It wasn’t long ago that the №1 and №2 carbon polluters in the world were sitting on the sidelines watching the planet heat up. Today, they are leading the charge to be part of the solution, as we saw over the weekend. Domestically — it would be supporting renewables. The price has gone down and deployment has gone up. Tax policy is part of it but the important work that Obama got off the ground by funding ARPA-E in ARRA (which includes R&D for new energy technologies) is only going to continue to pay off.
Biggest disappointment: In term one, there was no reason for the administration to punt on the ozone standard. Thankfully … it’s gotten back on track but if there was one thing to change it would be that. As an aside, I would also say if Bears Ears — America’s most significant unprotected cultural landscape — is not permanently protected before the president leaves office that would also be a major disappointment.
Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corp.
Grade: We would give the Obama administration a resounding F.
Biggest accomplishment: There are no “accomplishments” of this administration, as President Obama has been the greatest destroyer that America has ever seen. This is particularly so regarding the cost and reliability of electricity for all Americans, including our poorest families.
Biggest disappointment: The poorest 25 million families in the United States now pay out $0.22, of every $1.00 they earn, for energy. Mr. Obama promised that electricity rates would “skyrocket” in 2008, and since. These poorest families are now paying the brunt of these destructive energy policies.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club
Grade: B+, with room for improvement.
Biggest accomplishment: The aggressive willingness with which President Obama ultimately put tackling the climate crisis at the top of his agenda. There are a lot of things that fit under the umbrella of that achievement, from making a difference globally in the lead up to Paris and beyond by prioritizing climate in discussions with other heads of state to rejecting Keystone XL. Fuel economy standards, clean energy investments in the stimulus, modernizing the broken coal leasing program, more protected acreage and national monuments than any other president in history — these actions and more made a difference not just in making progress to curb emissions and protect our planet, but in showing the rest of the world that the U.S. was finally ready to lead globally. Paris would not have been possible without that.
Biggest disappointment: Part of the reason the president’s second term has been so exciting was because his first term was disappointing. And it’s true that some of the trends from the first term have unfortunately carried over. We’d like to have seen significantly more progress curbing methane pollution from existing sources. That’s a place where only baby steps have been taken. At the same time, we’d like to see a legitimate, comprehensive strategy developed to keep dirty fuels in the ground outside of a few key areas where there has been action. But, then again, he still has a few months to go.
Christine Todd Whitman, U.S. EPA administrator during the George W. Bush administration
Biggest accomplishment: Setting aside protected land.
Biggest disappointment: Not elevating the discussion on climate change.
Nancy Sutley, former Obama administration chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality
Grade: I think the Obama administration has overall done incredibly well in its energy and environmental policies and has really moved the needle on climate, clean energy and conservation. From the president to his appointees, it has been about getting things done and every part of the federal government has played a part in tackling the climate challenge and embracing clean energy and sustainability. Real, tangible climate policies, advances in clean energy technology and deployment and new national monuments and many accomplishments that haven’t gotten as much public attention will be lasting legacies of this administration and this president.
Biggest accomplishment: Confronting climate change head on domestically and internationally. The Climate Action Plan laid out a road map that is being carried out and added to, including the Clean Power Plan, the agreements with China, and the Paris Agreement.
Biggest disappointment: Not being able to get climate legislation and the general failure of Congress to engage constructively on climate change.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee
Grade: Some of the folks in the administration are smart, but the president only really listens to the White House staff. Very narrow-minded and insular. I would give the administration an incomplete, but it’s not their fault.
Biggest accomplishment: Trying to take credit for energy advancements that took place in spite of their policies.
Biggest disappointment: This president taking domestic energy production for granted. The emissions reductions, they came from unconventional shale. He’s not readily admitting or promoting this fact. In reality it’s the only path forward. Additionally, they have no grasp on the length of time and effort it takes private industry to get through the permitting process to develop, let alone with all the new layers that have been added by this president.
Henry Waxman, former California Democratic congressman
Grade: I would give President Obama an A grade.
Biggest accomplishment: Among his other environmental accomplishments, his investment in renewable energies, tighter mileage standards, methane gas and CFC controls, the Power Plant rule, and international efforts with China and at the Paris Conference to get international cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Biggest disappointment: Congress’ lack of will to pass a cap and trade or carbon tax, all the while denying the science and threat of climate change.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee
Grade: F, for false advertising and not being honest or forthcoming with the American people.
Biggest accomplishment: Imposing costly and burdensome and often unnecessary regulations on the American people.
Biggest disappointment: President Obama’s empty promises.
The president recently agreed to the Paris climate deal, the cornerstone of which is the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Even if all 178 countries that agreed to the climate deal meet their promised reductions of carbon emissions for the next 85 years, that will reduce temperatures by only 1/6 of one degree Celsius! And it will cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs. EPA’s own data shows that the Clean Power Plan would reduce sea level rise by only 1/100th of an inch, the thickness of three sheets of paper. Why punish the American people for no significant impact on climate change?
The administration’s regulations effectively pick winners and losers by favoring one type of energy over another. This administration also controls American lives through burdensome regulations that have little benefit, while harming hardworking Americans. Many of this administration’s most expensive and burdensome regulations, such as its proposed ozone rules and the Clean Power Plan, are based on data that not even the EPA has seen. The administration opposes letting the American people see that data that supposedly justifies its regulations. That’s why I sponsored, and last year the House passed, The Secret Science Reform Act, which requires the release of underlying data before a regulation can be implemented. The Obama administration opposes letting the people see the data. What are they trying to hide?
Throughout our nation’s history technology has always solved our problems and that is true now. We should let sound science, R&D and technological breakthroughs, not a political agenda, address climate change.
Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and former Obama EPA deputy administrator
Grade: While I was at the EPA, I can tell you we were aiming for an A every day. In the two years since I’ve left, the administration has continued to put a high priority on responding to climate change using all the tools at the executive branch’s disposal, including laws that have already been passed by Congress like the Clean Air Act. We didn’t see a comprehensive national approach to evolving our energy system, but thanks to action on issues ranging from appliance efficiency to renewable energy tax credits to fuel efficiency standards, plus action by cities, states and businesses to expand clean energy, we’re moving in the right direction.
Biggest accomplishment: The biggest accomplishment has to be the leadership that led to the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. U.S. leadership was essential to delivering the deal by showing through action at home that the U.S. was prepared to do its part and by the president’s personal engagement in diplomacy that helped persuade China and others to do their part, too. No one agreement solves a global challenge as complex as climate change, but Paris has the tools to hold countries accountable and build ambition over time.
Another big accomplishment was working with the auto and trucking industry to set new rules that will dramatically increase the fuel economy, and decrease the greenhouse gas emissions, of cars and trucks for decades. With transportation now the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, action in this area is one of the most significant steps the administration took that will pay dividends for the next decade.
The Clean Power Plan was also a major accomplishment. EPA consulted extensively with states and industry. As with most programs under the Clean Air Act, EPA set emissions targets, then let states determine how to reach them, including using market-based approaches. As it works its way through the courts, which was inevitable, we’re already seeing states talking and thinking about how to develop implementation plans. A cleaner energy system has both environmental and economic benefits, so it wouldn’t make sense to stop that progress.
Biggest disappointment: A major disappointment was the failure of the Waxman-Markey bill that would have taken a comprehensive, market-based approach to climate change. Giving business the tools to find the most efficient and effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would have been a huge win. Instead we have a state-by-state approach, with 10 states successfully deploying cap-and-trade policies to reduce emissions, but that doesn’t deliver the full economic efficiency that we could get with a comprehensive carbon pricing program at the national level.
Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia Republican attorney general
Grade: President Obama’s administration deserves a failing grade on two counts. To start, the Obama EPA has promulgated some of the most far-reaching and unlawful regulations. This is borne out in the Supreme Court repeatedly rejecting several significant regulations, including its unprecedented stay of the EPA’s Power Plan. These unlawful regulatory actions have harmed working families and negatively impacted some of our nation’s most vulnerable populations.
Biggest accomplishment: No answer.
Biggest disappointment: It’s clear the Obama EPA does not care about the working families who rely on the most reliable and affordable energy sources that our nation has to offer. Its radical agenda of using any means necessary to end the use of fossil-fuel energy is not only an affront to the rule of law, it ignores the interests of the people who work in or rely on good paying jobs in those industries.
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters
Grade: President Obama is on track to be the greenest president, but there’s still a lot more work to do.
Biggest accomplishment: Thanks to the leadership of President Obama and his administration, we have made historic progress protecting our children and future generations from the devastating impacts of climate change. From the landmark fuel economy standards to the Clean Power Plan to the rejection of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to the Paris Agreement, President Obama has demonstrated a strong commitment to this urgent and defining challenge of our time. He has also worked tirelessly to safeguard the air we breathe and the water we drink. He has wisely used his authority to protect more land and water than any president in history and has selected places that help showcase the diversity that makes America so strong. We are excited about the continued progress to be made over the next few months as President Obama continues to build on his environmental legacy. Our nation must elect a president who will continue this critical work of protecting our environment, tackling climate change, and ensuring all communities have access to clean air and safe drinking water.
Biggest disappointment: It’s been disappointing that we haven’t been able to legislate more, but that’s due to too many pro-polluter extremists in Congress.
Jeff Holmstead, industry lobbyist and former U.S. EPA air chief during the George W. Bush administration
Grade: An A for effort but a D overall.
I’m sure they’ve issued more major environmental rules than any prior administration, so you’d have to give them an A for effort, but many have been ill-advised. Of course there are big examples of regulatory overreach — the CPP, WOTUS, and the MATs rule — but there are others that haven’t received as much attention. From a policy perspective, for example, there was no reason to add 1-hour SO2 and NO2 national ambient air quality standards because there is no evidence that any susceptible individuals are exposed to the type of short term concentrations that EPA purports to be addressing. Yet implementing the standards has been difficult and cumbersome for states and industries — all without any benefit in the real world. These new standards seemed mostly about satisfying the environmental community — not good public policy.
Biggest accomplishment: Whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, they’ve pushed a large number of major regulations through the regulatory process. No one could ever accuse Gina McCarthy and her associates of being lazy. Except where the courts have stepped in to stop them, they have largely accomplished the goals that they had when they took office.
Biggest disappointment: They never made the effort needed to pass climate change legislation. Sure, the President said he wanted Congress to pass such legislation, and the administration supported the Waxman-Markey bill, but they never made the kind of effort that has always been necessary to actually get such legislation through Congress. Think about the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act. The first Bush administration drafted a very comprehensive legislative proposal, submitted it to Congress, and then worked for over a year with Democrats, Republicans, environmental groups, and industry to get the bill passed. There were 4 or 5 senior White House officials who spent time almost every day working on the legislative effort — working out the difficult compromises that are always necessary to pass controversial legislation. When they thought their own supporters in industry were being unreasonable, they pushed back on them. If the Obama administration had followed a similar path, we would have a sensible climate change statute today, and EPA wouldn’t be trying to torture the current Clean Air Act to claim regulatory authority that simply isn’t there.