2013 In Review: It Could Have Been Worse

So 2013 is nearly done.  On the political scene it’s easy to hope that the door gives the year a good whack on the way out.  But as we take a final look back on the environmental front, there’s a lot for which we should be grateful– especially if you take into consideration the things that didn’t get worse.

The Obama administration should be congratulated for the big step it took last summer in its commitment to fight climate change. Following on the heels of the landmark 2012 rule by the Obama administration to require automakers to vastly increase the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks, President Obama announced his commitment to take further action on climate change and avoid, as the President put it, condemning “future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” A particularly significant feature of the President’s climate action plan is its stated goal to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. If done right, these standards could have an enormously positive impact on public health and would be a momentous victory in the fight to control climate change.

Another important climate item in 2013 was something that didn’t happen. Namely, the Obama administration did not approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. While it remains to be seen whether the administration will eventually approve the counterproductive project, the President’s skepticism concerning the benefits of the pipeline and his commitment to evaluate its contribution of carbon to the atmosphere provides hope that the administration will scrap the misbegotten proposal altogether in favor of a cleaner energy future for America.

Also worthy of attention are the many staffing changes made in highly influential energy and environmental positions within the administration. Lisa Jackson left her post as EPA Administrator with an exceptional list of accomplishments, including adoption of air toxics standards that will save thousands of American lives every year. The Obama administration’s decision to replace Jackson with the highly capable Gina McCarthy serves as a sign of the administration’s continued commitment to climate and other crucial environmental protections.  A further proof of this continued commitment was demonstrated as the brilliant Dr. Stephen Chu was replaced at the Department of Energy by veteran climate policy leader and energy expert, Dr. Ernest Moniz.

Heather Zichal, former senior energy and climate adviser to the White House, departed too after the President’s unveiled his groundbreaking climate action plan.  Zichal helped orchestrate the development of this plan and should also be credited for the critical role she played in securing the vehicle fuel economy standards. Also announcing her departure was Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who can be proud of her accomplishments such as oversight of the creation of the first comprehensive National Ocean Policy.

The biggest item on the arrival side of White House staffing news is the addition of John Podesta, former Chief of Staff to President Clinton and previously a board member of the NRDC Action Fund. Podesta will be serving as senior counsel to president Obama and, considering his work in making climate change one of the top priorities of the think tank he founded after leaving the Clinton Administration, his return to the White House is an exciting prospect for the administration’s increased activity on climate change in the coming year.

Any review of 2013 would be remiss if it failed to discuss Congressional activity, or lack thereof.  There was at least a bipartisan budget deal, but otherwise Congress remained largely ineffectual. This meant that progress on the environment was left almost entirely up to action by the executive branch even as the administration fended off persistent attacks by climate deniers in Congress.

Hope persists that an eventual legislative agreement can be reached to update the federal law (the Toxics Substances Control Act, or TSCA) that regulates chemicals used in commercial and consumer products, but negotiations on a bill have stalled over how to set clear standards and deadlines that would actually make the law better than what exists now. Still, a good day in Congress is sometimes defined as doing no harm, and so it was good that bad environmental laws were kept off the President’s desk, and sneak attacks on the environment through unrelated provisions in other bills (termed “riders”) were mostly avoided.

Another topic that warrants discussion is the ongoing internal debate within the national Republican party. Following the party’s defeat in the last Presidential election, the Republican National Committee commissioned an assessment of the root causes of their underperformance. This report emphasized the party’s need to reach out to minorities, to alter their stance and messaging on immigration, and to pay greater attention to generational issues in order to remain relevant and competitive in elections moving forward.

Despite these recommendations, the Republican Party has retained a reputation as ideologically exclusive and controlled by extremists. This fall’s extended government shutdown is a perfect example of the Republicans’ increased isolation from mainstream opinion, as most Americans held an unfavorable view of the shutdown because it hampered the ability of federal agencies like the EPA to do their jobs protecting us.

The party’s unfortunate fate when it’s outside the political mainstream was evident in state races this past fall. In Virginia, the more conservative a Republican candidate for statewide office was, the worse he performed in his election – and Ken Cuccinelli’s views on climate change in particular were used to help define him as an extremist. Alternatively, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie took a more reasonable stance on climate change  and other issues, and subsequently won re-election in a landslide in a “blue” state.

So the administration’s commitment to action on climate change and the possibility that more reasonable, bipartisan cooperation will return to Congress in not a bad place to start for 2014.  Certainly 2013 set a standard of performance that our leaders should be expected to exceed.  Here’s hoping they exceed it by a lot.


Is LePage Ready to Run Clean?

Paul LePage, the governor of Maine, doesn’t seem to get it when it comes to climate change. Despite Maine voters’ clear support for reducing carbon pollution and acting to address climate change, LePage reliably blocks action and denies the gravity of the climate challenge.

LePage’s latest dumbfounding bit of denial was to focus on what he believes is the positive side of climate change. Speaking at a conference, he said,

“Everybody looks at the negative effects of global warming, but with the ice melting, the Northern Passage has opened up. So maybe, instead of being at the end of the pipeline, we’re now at the beginning of a new pipeline.”

While I am certainly a glass-half-full person, climate change is hardly an appropriate place for a nonchalant focus on one person’s perception of a silver lining. In Maine, warmer waters, ocean acidification and extreme weather are threatening clam populations and sea birds. Sea level rise and extreme weather events threaten the state’s coastline. LePage’s certainty on the upside of global warming is also interesting considering his previous comments that climate change is a “hoax” and a “scam” with the science unsettled. If the impacts of a warming world are so apparent in one instance, why not in the others?

I can only hope that LePage’s clumsy climate comments are a sign that he is joining the vast majority of Americans in accepting the truth of climate change science. Certainly many in his own political party, including 61% of non-Tea Party Republicans, accept the science. Perhaps LePage’s shift from denier to opportunist is a sign that he’s understanding his constituents’ views better. After all, polling conducted for the NRDC Action Fund found that 83% of Mainers wanted a reduction in industrial carbon pollution.

We will soon have a chance to see what Mainers think of LePage’s views (and actions) when it comes to addressing climate change and promoting (or obstructing) clean energy. LePage is up for reelection in November 2014 and will face off against Rep. Mike Michaud, a strong supporter of clean energy and climate action. In contrast to his opponent, Michaud says “Any potential benefit of allowing climate change to continue unaddressed is far outweighed by the danger of our failure to act.”

Michaud’s gotten the message that running clean works. Will LePage?


Lessons from Virginia

As Virginians await the final results of this year’s election, one fact has emerged as clear.  The more extreme – or less mainstream – the Republican candidate for statewide office was, the worse he performed at the polls.

This fact can be simply established by listing the three main Republican candidates’ ideological stances and comparing it to their popular vote tally.  The most extreme of the candidates was Lieutenant Governor nominee E.W. Jackson, who was so extreme the other candidates didn’t want to mention him during their campaigns and balked at being associated with him.  He came in third on the list with 44.54 percent of the vote.  The least extreme candidate, Mark Obenshain for Attorney General, did the best (49.88 percent of the vote) and trails in a race so close that a recount is almost certain.

That oddly puts Ken Cuccinelli in the middle of the pack where extremism is concerned.  Yes that’s right, the darling of the Virginia tea party who attracted so much national attention for his far right views ranked second in extremism behind Jackson on a slate chosen at a convention dominated by activists.  His vote total was also middling at 45.23 percent of the vote, which was much closer than many thought it would be, but a poor enough showing that the race was decided before the end of the night.

There has been much speculation about the role that overarching issues such as the government shutdown or the health care launch may have played in the race for governor.  But the effect on the party preference of voters of any of these issues would have been felt up and down the ticket and therefore should not have altered the relative standings of the candidates.  So what did?

Let’s consider the margin that ended up separating Obenshain and Cuccinelli.  Terry McAuliffe did an effective job of framing Cuccinelli as the candidate that was out of step with the mainstream values of Virginia.   At least in Northern Virginia, three of the issues he used to support this “out-of-step” claim were woman’s issues, gun control, and the environment, the latter of which focused on Cuccinelli’s role as a climate change denier.    Whatever the importance of these issues to voters when taken individually, they were put together with the purpose of documenting the larger point that Cuccinelli was an extremist in the grip of far right ideology.

And Cuccinelli was guilty as charged on climate change.  He not only denied humans were contributing to climate change, but also opposed any actions to curb it.  What’s more, as attorney general he attacked the veracity of climate sciences research conducted at the University of Virginia for purely political reasons, even though the scientists had been independently cleared of any wrong doing.  Although these were favorable stances with his tea party base, they were definitely at odds with the popular opinion in Virginia, where 77 percent of citizens agree that past warming has been caused by humans and an overwhelming majority support actions on climate change (for example, 81 percent support reducing greenhouse gases from power plants).

In comparison, Obenshain consciously kept his distance from the tea party froth around Jackson and Cuccinelli, emphasizing an independent and bipartisan image in his campaign ads.  This is not to say that he is a moderate who supports real action on climate change – he’s not.  It only means that he knew better than to allow his opponent, Mark Herring, to easily use this issue or others to paint him into the same corner as the rest of the ticket.

The closer–than-expected result in the governor’s race has left unresolved the dispute between tea party Republicans and mainstream Republicans in the state and elsewhere.  The tea party feels their candidate was abandoned and could have won with more help, and the establishment believes they would not have needed so much help if the party had nominated a better positioned Republican, such as Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling.  Of these two views, the establishment would seem to have the stronger argument – even if the race could have been won (which isn’t certain), it would have required diversion of scarce resources from other races where they were needed.  Wouldn’t it have been better not to have made that race so difficult to begin with?

The lesson for the Republican Party for their image in Virginia and elsewhere is simple.  Playing to the base comes at a price, as it often gets you out of step with a majority of the voters on a rack of important issues, including climate change.  This year in Virginia, the price of catering to the party base may have been more than the Republicans could afford.

Message to the Tea Party: Stop Trying to Drown Our Government

After the debacle of the government shutdown, it’s no surprise GOP lawmakers are pouncing on the botched rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act. Who knew IT troubles could provide such a big political advantage? Republicans have seized this opportunity to distract from their failed negotiations over budget and healthcare issues. And by plowing forward with their recriminations, they have highlighted a significant truth: there is more than one way to skin a cat and there is more than one way kill the government.

Republican strategist Grover Norquist is famous for saying: “My goal is to cut the government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to a size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” Now the Tea Party crowd is doing its best to squeeze what’s left down the drain.

They have tried to cut taxes and gut budgets so the government can’t operate properly. They have tried to handcuff agencies so they can’t do their jobs. And as if that wasn’t extreme enough, they went so far as to shut the whole thing down. But perhaps the most destructive thing they have done is to make Washington appear so dysfunctional that more people lose faith with the whole enterprise.

Yet poll after poll show that voters hate gridlock, but value what government provides—especially public health and environmental safeguards. In other words, there is a baby in that bathtub that is most definitely worth saving.

According to a survey conducted for NRDC by Public Policy Polling, for instance, almost two-thirds of voters opposed the near closure of the Environmental Protection Agency during the government shutdown. Why? Because ordinary citizens can’t force coal-fired power plants and heavy manufacturers to clean up their act. They count on the EPA to do the job—to stand between them and dangerous pollution and to make sure the air is clean enough to breathe and the water is safe enough to drink.

People don’t appreciate Tea Party types messing with these protections. While most Americans opposed the shutdown, even more didn’t like the fact that it furloughed EPA inspectors. This was true nationally among Latinos, in key states, in districts represented by once-moderate House Republicans, and even in House Speaker John Boehner’s home district.

And yet polluter friendly lawmakers—including some Democrats—continue to attack the EPA.  Recently Representative Ed Whitfield (R-KY) introduced a draft bill that would force the EPA to get approval from Congress in order to set limits on the amount of dangerous carbon pollution coming from power plants. This is a radical rethinking of how safeguards work in our country. It would allow politicians—instead of scientists and medical health professionals—to decide how much pollution is safe for our communities.

Today the NRDC Action Fund with NRDC released polling that solidly shows voters support candidates who will take action to reduce carbon pollution. This is an opportunity for candidates facing tough races ion 2014 to embrace EPA standards to protect the health and well-being of Americans. Doing the right thing by standing up to dirty polluters is not just good policy, it’s good politics.

The bad news? This is only the latest attempt of coal industry allies and Tea Party leaders to weaken government oversight. Over the past few years, House GOP lawmakers have voted more than 300 times to undermine public health and environmental safeguards. Most of these efforts have not become law, but they have taken up a lot of time and energy, and they feed into voters’ perceptions that Washington is full of bickering naysayers.

And this is where the Tea Party extremists could gain advantage: voters could start tuning out and distrusting government—including the branches and services and protections they value.

The best antidote to this apathy is to keep voting and keeping following your lawmakers’ records. Did they enter government service only to tear down the government? Do they routinely try to gut the EPA and other agencies that protect us from pollution? Do they talk about making government function better but try to cripple it at every turn? If so, then vote them out of office. A recent CNN/ORC International survey found that three-quarters of voters believe most GOP members of Congress shouldn’t be re-elected.

If voters don’t lose faith in the government between now and the mid-term elections, we could send the Tea Party a powerful message: Americans value government when it keeps our families safe and makes our lives better. And if they keep trying to drown it in the bathtub, we will act as the lifeguard and save it.


Undo New Carbon Rules? No Way.

Now that the government shutdown is over (for now) and debt default avoided (for now), the Tea Party extremists in Congress will likely get back to their more typical day jobs of denying climate change and trying to undermine environmental protection. In the midst of the shutdown we told you on our Facebook page  about legislation introduced by Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia that would, if enacted, undo recently proposed rules to limit carbon pollution at new coal-fired power plants.

CRA blog fb pic 10.22.13

The resolution, H.J. 64, was introduced pursuant to the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA allows for Congress to formally “disapprove” of major rules issued by executive agencies. Passage of a CRA resolution results in the rule not going into effect and prevents the agency from ever promulgating a substantially similar rule again. Keep in mind, agencies issue rules pursuant to the laws previously passed by Congress. And realize that McKinley’s legislative weapon of choice may only disapprove final rules, not mere proposed rules like the one released by EPA for public input.  But setting aside this obvious defect, if the McKinley resolution were to succeed, EPA’s hands would be tied in implementing a key part of the Clean Air Act’s direction to limit the harm of a dangerous air pollutant (carbon) because EPA would be prohibited from issuing a similar rule to limit carbon coming from new power plants.

While McKinley may be getting support from his coal industry supporters, it’s important for fans of a stable climate to keep in mind that this bill has little support outside of the extreme Tea Party wing of Congress and those with vested interests in building new, dirty coal plants. Here are a few reminders for representatives who might be considering sponsoring the McKinley resolution:

Americans of all political stripes want to ACT on climate. The most recent polling finds that 87 percent of Americans support some EPA action on climate change, including 78 percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats.

  1. Doomed to fail. Congress has considered CRA resolutions that attempted to undermine climate action and the Clean Air Act recently. Each time a majority of senators has rejected these dangerous attempts to harm public health.
  2. President Obama cares about climate change. “Today, for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans, I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.” President Obama uttered these words in his June speech on climate change. The President has the authority to veto a CRA resolution. There is no way President Obama would participate in undermining something he explicitly directed EPA to do.

It’s time for Congress to get to work, solving the real problems that face this country. They should stop wasting time on efforts that are both unpopular and unlikely to succeed. The question for you, dear readers, is whether your representatives know how you feel on this issue.