A slew of White House retreats on environmental issues has “green” voters seeing red - and threatening political consequences for President Obama in next year’s election.
For most of his administration, Mr. Obama has aggressively supported clean-energy tax credits and last month announced the first fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks.
The president, however, may have reversed support among environmentalists with other recent moves - particularly his decision announced Friday to abandon tougher air-quality rules.
“We’re paying attention, and the president needs to know that putting thousands of American lives needlessly at risk is a serious political miscalculation,” Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford blogged after the announcement.
Scores of activists have been arrested outside the White House in the past week as they protested the proposed Keystone XL pipeline extension, which the administration has concluded would have a negligible impact on the environment.
The XL pipeline decision, combined with Mr. Obama’s order for the Environmental Protection Agency to back off from tougher ozone restrictions under the Clean Air Act, has environmentalists concerned that the president is caving in to criticism from business advocates who contend that federal overregulation is holding back economic growth.
The president insisted that his commitment to protecting public health is “unwavering,” and White House officials said the action - which the business community readily welcomed - had nothing to do with industry pressure.
“I will continue to stand with the hardworking men and women at the EPA as they strive every day to hold polluters accountable and protect our families from harmful pollution,” Mr. Obama said in a statement, pledging to thwart any attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act.
His words weren’t enough for environmental groups.
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, accused Mr. Obama of “siding with corporate polluters over the American people.”
“The Clean Air Act clearly requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set protective standards against smog - based on science and the law,” Ms. Beinecke said. “The White House now has polluted that process with politics.”
The Obama administration previously said that the ozone standard of 75 parts per billion, set by the Bush administration in 2008, was based on outdated science. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson had pushed for a tougher standard ahead of the regularly scheduled five-year review in 2013.
Environmentalists say the administration is risking the health of Americans by scrapping that effort. Pointing to the EPA’s own data, the NRDC said a stricter ozone standard of 70 parts per billion would result in 4,300 fewer premature deaths and 2,200 fewer heart attacks annually by 2020.
“This is a huge win for corporate polluters and huge loss for public health,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
The abandoned rules to increase air quality mark the latest disappointment for environmental activists who helped propel Mr. Obama to victory in 2008.
The president used his first two years to push through overhauls of the nation’s health care and financial-regulatory systems, effectively conceding that “cap-and-trade” legislation to reduce greenhouse gases was all but impossible to enact by the time Republicans took control of the House this year.
Mr. Obama further roiled environmental groups when his administration lifted the moratorium on deep-water drilling that he imposed in the wake of the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and, more recently, issued a positive environmental assessment of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada through six states.
In its defense, the White House said Friday that Mr. Obama had notched some victories on environmental issues over the past 2 1/2 years, such as directing billions of dollars to clean energy and energy-efficiency programs in the economic stimulus package and issuing tougher fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks and the first-ever standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
“The Obama administration has taken unprecedented steps forward to protect the public health of American families by reducing harmful air pollution,” Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, wrote in a blog post on WhiteHouse.gov just after the ozone announcement. “Taken together, the administration’s clean-air achievements will produce enormous benefits for public health and the environment - while promoting the nation’s continued economic growth and well-being.”
For many environmentalists, though, the list of accomplishments has been overshadowed by what they see as missed opportunities.
Although the administration has not made a final recommendation on the pipeline, the State Department’s findings prompted scores of protesters to camp out in front of the White House last week. Dozens of the activists, including actresses Margot Kidder and Daryl Hannah, were arrested at the “sit-in.”
In spite of the high-profile criticism, Mr. Obama’s actions appear to reflect popular opinion: Polls show the environment is a relatively low priority for the average voter during a recession.
A Gallup survey from March showed that Americans prioritize economic development over environmental protection at a rate of 54 percent to 36 percent - the widest margin since Gallup first asked the question in 1984. Since that time, the pollster said, Americans generally favored the environment over the economy.
“People definitely want to protect the environment, but when the economy isn’t good, it takes a back seat,” said Jeffrey Jones, managing editor of the Gallup Poll.