The green lobby’s influence has been the stuff of headlines in recent months. Even as gasoline prices soared, it persuaded President Obama to block the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought Canadian oil to Texas refineries. And starting with the Solyndra debacle, there’s been a steady stream of stories about the lobby’s success in finagling billions of dollars in federal loans for green-energy companies that just keep going belly-up.
But the greens exert far more clout than even these examples suggest. When it comes to U.S. international development and trade policies, the greens don’t just influence decisions, they actually run the show.
Upon taking office, Mr. Obama pledged to pursue a new international aid strategy. He would break developing nations’ dependence on U.S. aid and instead offer their “people a path out of poverty.” The president also dismissed “the old myth that development is mere charity that does not serve our interest.” The rhetoric was correct, but his subsequent actions have taken the United States a step backward and jeopardized a golden opportunity to set a new paradigm in international development.
Progressives have long sought to scupper free-trade initiatives for fear that lower labor costs would give poorer nations a considerable competitive advantage against U.S.-produced goods. Nowadays, instead of appearing to oppose foreign workers, they cite environmental concerns as a reason to torpedo free trade. Such “green protectionism” has led the administration to crack down on the use of tropical wood in Gibson Guitars and vegetable oils produced in tropical regions.
That’s right. The EPA has sought to shut out palm-oil producers in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa from the U.S. renewable-energy market. And it’s citing spurious statistics to do it.
It’s a strange campaign. As the administration “pivots to Asia,” one would think strengthening ties with countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia would be critical to U.S. national interests. Certainly, closer relations with Latin American countries are highly desirable. So why pick a palm-oil war with these nations?
Moreover, palm oil can help provide renewable energy - something this president has pledged to promote. But the EPA is trying to put the kibosh on it.
In a highly suspect ruling, the EPA claims that palm oil does “not meet the minimum 20 percent lifecycle GHG [greenhouse gas] reduction threshold needed to qualify as renewable fuel under the RFS [Renewable Fuel Standard] program.” By EPA calculations, it seems, palm oil reduces GHG emissions by just 17 percent - a convenient shortfall. But an independent study in Finland discovered that palm oil actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 52 percent, a figure that either calls into question the EPA’s internal methodology or highlights how the agency’s ideological prejudices are working to curtail economic development overseas and free markets domestically. From experience, it’s most likely the latter.
Green interests also have trumped other aspects of the president’s promise to put developing nations on the path to prosperity. The administration has funneled tens of millions of dollars to green groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Rainforest Alliance, organizations that also benefit considerably from partnerships with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Rather than create economic growth opportunities for developing nations through the core anti-corruption programs of the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC), the administration’s alliance with the greens has focused in some countries on unnecessary and peripheral climate-change initiatives, the promotion of reckless certification standards, and punitive trade barriers that either prevent nations from using their own raw materials or stymie their ability to bring goods to market. Thus, in addition to handing out aid funds, the administration is paying countries not to develop. In effect, the United States is paying countries to stay poor.
Since pledging on the campaign trail to “create 5 million green jobs,” Mr. Obama has tried to institute policies conducive to the interests of the green movement - even at the expense of the country’s (and our trading partners’) wider economic well-being and national interests.
As election time comes ever closer, Mr. Obama has pledged to increase international development aid, a move that could face substantial opposition from fiscal conservatives in Congress. Obviously, members of Congress should pay close attention to the amount of taxpayer funds being thrown at green nongovernmental organizations, but they also should scrutinize the policy positions being taken that run counter to the strategic interests of the United States and the economic well-being of the developing world. Mr. Obama pledged at the U.N. to respect both. As long as the greens maintain a grip on the White House, he’ll accomplish neither.
James M. Roberts is research fellow for economic freedom and growth at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for International Trade and Economics.