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Obama's Environmental Policies Don't Deserve Paul Krugman's Praise

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In the latest cover story for Rolling Stone, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman offers a full-throated defense of the Obama administration, taking to task its critics from across the political spectrum. Included in the typically dour liberal’s praise: the president’s environmental policy, which "is starting to look like it could be a major legacy."

“We'll have to do a lot more soon, or face civilization-threatening disaster,” Krugman writes. “But what Obama has done is far from trivial.”

He ought not to give the White House so much credit.

Any rigorous measure of environmental policy has to consider the scope of the global climate crisis. If the planet is to avoid a two degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels—the internationally recognized threshold that, if surpassed, will unleash the most nightmarish effects of climate change—then we need to start leaving carbon in the ground, right now. (Activist and writer Bill McKibben has calculated about four-fifths of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the soil.) Given that math, the least we might ask of an American administration is not to exploit the reserves that happen to fall within U.S. borders. We might also ask that federal policy encourage a faster transition to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. 

On both counts, the administration has failed. 

There are legitimate roadblocks to progress in Congress, but as White House critics and supporters alike acknowledge, federal agencies set meaningful environmental policy on their own. And when it comes to climate change, their record ranges from the unimpressive to the downright harmful. The Environmental Protection Agency has advanced some modest policies that will result in minor emissions cuts, but at the same time, other agencies have shown an astonishing willingness to expand an industry whose bottom line depends on cooking the planet beyond repair.   

The three successes that Krugman highlights are modest. Of them, the EPA’s new fuel-efficiency standards are the most significant. The recent growth of renewables is perhaps slightly encouraging, but wind and solar still only make up about five percent of the nation’s electricity share. And the supposed crowning achievement of Obama’s climate record, the EPA’s plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, amounts to little.

The administration's officially stated goal of a 30 percent emissions drop by 2030 is misleading. That’s because the targets are expressed in 2005-level emissions. Since then, sector-wide carbon pollution has already plummeted 15 percent, thanks to the Great Recession, booming natural gas production, and efficiency improvements. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan calls for shedding that additional 15 percent over the next 16 years. In other words, it enshrines progress that’s already being made; it simply allows the goals to be met over twice as long a period of time.  

“It’s low-hanging fruit,” Charles Komanoff, head of the Carbon Tax Center, told me in June. “[The plan] doesn’t amount to very much in terms of reducing U.S. emissions from what they would otherwise be.” 

Standing alone, these proactive measures might be “far from trivial,” as Krugman puts it. But it’s impossible to ignore the ominous backdrop. Other federal agencies have gone out of their way to nurture fossil fuel producers, bolstering our deadly reliance on carbon.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continues to hand over vast stretches of public land to dirty energy developers, including in Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin—home to the nation’s largest coal reserves. Thanks to pro-industry reforms in 1990, BLM leases there are notoriously undervalued, as federal audits have highlighted. And yet the well-documented economic losses—to say nothing of the climate impact—have done nothing to stop the leasing program.

Much of that coal won’t go to power plants stateside, but it’s coming out the ground anyway. Under Obama’s watch, the U.S. has solidified itself as the world’s fourth-largest coal exporter, mostly via terminals on the East Coast. It could get worse: the BLM-sanctioned extraction frenzy at Powder River is putting pressure on regulators to approve a set of newly-proposed coal export terminals on the Pacific Coast.    

It’s not just coal. As the shale-drilling revolution floods domestic markets with cheap oil and gas, federal regulators have withered under pressure. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has rubber-stamped dozens of natural gas infrastructure projects, showing little regard for their climate impact. (The carbon impact isn’t as bad as coal, but the gas production chain generates methane, a greenhouse gas that’s up to 86 times as potent as carbon in the short-term.)

Federal agencies have opened the floodgates for what was once unthinkable: oil and gas exports. This year, the Commerce Department quietly sidestepped the nation’s de facto crude oil export ban, approving the first overseas oil shipment in decades. (Experts predict the trend to continue.) Obama’s Department of Energy has signed off on four new multi-billion dollar natural gas export plants. In each of these cases, energy interests have prevailed over environmental concerns. As they’ve weighed these applications, Energy Department officials have repeatedly refused to acknowledge what the New York Times pointed out this week: When you approve exports, you’re encouraging more extraction.

Lastly, we cannot forget the administration’s collaboration with Canada’s noxious tar sands industry, whose success hinges on overseas market access. (Fully developing that carbon bomb in Alberta, NASA scientist James Hansen has remarked, would be “game over” for the planet). This August, with the press fixated on the Keystone XL pipeline, the State Department rubber-stamped a portion of a similar oil-bearing pipeline project: Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper. If the State Department can delay the Keystone XL, then surely the Alberta Clipper can wait, too. Instead, the agency gifted producers a temporary back-door route to global markets.

President Obama does deserve some credit for his occasionally powerful rhetoric on global warming. That matters on the international stage, where negotiators will hammer out a binding treaty in Paris next summer. As on other matters, though, the gap between the president’s oratory and his policy record spans miles. Sure, he has done more than any other U.S. president to tackle climate change. But even Krugman acknowledges in his piece that this "is actually faint praise." That's because Obama shouldn't be compared to his predecessors. He should be judged according to the gravity of the crisis.