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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Obama's Chance

Air Date: Week of

(Courtesy of Barack Obama)

Voters chose a greener White House and Congress. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood, Ingrid Lobet and Jeff Young explain what the election means for clean energy and climate change—and how measures to cap carbon emissions and advance renewable energy might fare.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young in Washington. Millions of Americans, more than had ever voted before went to the polls inspired by a historic presidential contest. The euphoria was overwhelming at the result, but the forty-fourth president sounded a somber note in accepting his new job.

OBAMA: For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime: two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.

CURWOOD: Those ominous problems could cramp some of the expansive promises made on the campaign trail on the subjects of energy and the environment.

OBAMA: We have to have energy independence. So I’ve put forward a plan to make sure that in ten years’ time we have freed ourselves from dependence on Middle Eastern oil by increasing production at home, but most importantly by starting to invest in alternative energies – solar, wind, biodiesel. Making sure that we are developing the fuel efficient cars of the future right here in the United States, in Ohio and Michigan, instead of Japan…

I think that we should look at offshore drilling and implement it in a way that allows us to get some additional oil. I support clean coal technology. It doesn’t make me popular with environmentalists, so….

I favor nuclear power as one component of our overall energy mix….

I also think that we’re gonna have to rebuild our infrastructure, which is falling behind. Our roads, our bridges, but also broadband lines that reach into rural communities. Also making sure that we have a new electricity grid to get the alternative energy to population centers that are using them….

But we know government can’t do it all. That’s why I’ll call on every American to join in conservation efforts. I believe we need to usher in a new era of responsibility.

CURWOOD: Boy, you know, I’m already exhausted. That’s such a long list, Jeff. And President Obama hasn’t even taken office yet.

YOUNG: Well, I think that kind of “greatest hits” compilation from the campaign trail there was a taste of the balance that he had to strike, the difficult balance that he had to strike on energy and the environment. And he obviously did it because he won in a landslide. Now the question is, can he strike the right balance to govern and to advance that clean energy agenda that he has.

CURWOOD: Well with cash being tight, I can see that the early priorities will be what – reducing demand. Also I think it’s important to get what - a cap and trade program which would generate revenues to do this other stuff – if, in fact the right to emit CO2 comes at a cost – these rights are auctioned.

YOUNG: That could very well be a way to, you know, raise the money to invest in these other programs that he wants to do. I think the first thing we’re gonna see, and one that he made very clear was his top priority, was this investment in clean energy to create green jobs. And even if it involves deficit spending, I think he is dedicated to that.

CURWOOD: Now let’s bring in our western bureau chief Ingrid Lobet. Ingrid, you on the line there from Los Angeles?

LOBET: Hi Steve. Hi Jeff.

CURWOOD: And what did you hear in that long list in Obama green promises?

LOBET: Well I did hear a long list of promises also, but there were a few things that I didn’t hear that are often on the minds of people in the West. I didn’t hear much during the campaign about public lands, about forests, parks, about superfund, the clean up of thousands of contaminated sights around the country, and I didn’t hear much about asthma, air quality.

CURWOOD: Now Obama in his landslide brought along a lot of Democratic candidates for senator. What did you see in the west and how does that affect the environmental agenda?

(Courtesy of Barack Obama)

LOBET: Well probably the biggest switch will be from Pete Domenici in New Mexico to Tom Udall. Domenici has been a friend to oil companies, to nuclear power and also to the mining industry. Now he’ll be replaced by Congressman Tom Udall who’s been all about protecting public land, pushing for nationwide clean energy requirement, and a member of the House Conservation Caucus. In Colorado, Wayne Allard left his seat, and he’ll be replaced with Mark Udall, that’s Tom Udall’s cousin. And Mark Udall has been on the House Energy and Efficiency Caucus, he’s sponsored legislation on land wilderness, the kinds of things that his father, the legendary Mo Udall is still remembered very fondly for in many places. And in Oregon, the incumbent senator Gordon Smith has voted in the Senate against taking action on climate change and as recently as five years ago said that scientists were split on the certainty of climate change. His seat is going to be taken by Jeff Merkley, who has put that issue – addressing climate change – front and center in his campaign. He wants to cut CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2050.

CURWOOD: And in the Northeast there were two races I think that were impacted by this landslide and by the environment. In New Hampshire, in a rematch between Republican John Sununu, who had the seat for the last six years, and the former governor, Jean Shaheen, Shaheen won this time, I think in no small measure because Sununu has been less aggressive on climate change. And in Maine, Susan Collins, the Republican, kept her seat, I think with more than 55% of the vote, even though the rest of the state went to Obama and two Democrats for both house seats.

YOUNG: She has a very strong environmental record in Maine, and environmentalists were also closely watching the race – senate races in North Carolina and Virginia, where Democrats unseated Republicans in both those states. Kay Hagan replacing Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina. And in Virginia, Senator John Warner being replaced by former Governor Mark Warner. So that’s now officially the Warner chair in the senate, I think. It’s now moved from Republican to Democratic control and in a lot of environmentalists’ view, that’s an improvement there – that’s a vote they think they can count on. A lot of gains here for the Democrats, and I think a lot of gains here for an environmental agenda. This is going to be a greener Congress in both the House and the Senate. However, that does not necessarily translate into immediate success for some of these high agenda items for the environment.

CURWOOD: And so what’s the strategy then for the Obama administration and for those senate leaders on the environment – I’m thinking of Barbara Boxer for example, the Chair of the Environmental Committee who’s really been pushing for climate legislation. What’s their agenda to get things forward? And, you know, if you look ahead to say to the U.S. getting back into an international agreement on climate change you would need 67 votes to ratify a treaty.

YOUNG: Yeah. Clean energy and climate change – these are the top of the list. I think getting some of the clean energy items will be easier, because people are onboard with that. That was a strong element in a lot of the campaign rhetoric and campaign advertising. You know, there were 54 campaign ads that used windmills, just because candidates obviously viewed this as a very positive way and voters responded positively. So that’s easier. Getting the cap and trade for climate and, as you mentioned, getting ratification of an international climate agreement, much more difficult. I had a nice talk with Senator Barbara Boxer. She chairs the Senate’s Environment Committee, of course, from California – Democrat from California – and she told me that she sees a possible strategy here that involves allowing the EPA to perhaps advance with its authority to regulate greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. If members of Congress see EPA taking this path, they’re gonna say “Hey, wait a minute. That’s our job.” And they’re gonna, maybe, you know, get off their duffs and pass a climate change bill.

Senator Barbara Boxer. (Courtesy of Barbara Boxer)

LOBET: And also the states are going to be able to proceed on their own now, as far as climate change. California and nineteen other states have been waiting for permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate tailpipe emissions and EPA has been withholding that permission. But now with a new administration that is going to change.

CURWOOD: Looks like on Capitol Hill, Jeff, you’re gonna get to see an old fashioned shoot out at the OK Corral. I saw there was a release from Congressman Henry Waxman saying he’s gonna run to be chair of the very powerful Energy and Commerce Committee that Congressman Dingle from Michigan has had as his fiefdom either as the chair or the senior member, I don’t know, for the last twenty years or something. Seems to me like that’s gonna be a pretty good fight.

YOUNG: I can’t wait to see this one unfold. You know Chairman Dingle, John Dingle of Michigan, has a pretty good environmental record, but his critics say he considers the environment to end at the very point that you shut the door of a car. He represents the auto making region there and, you know, this is shaping up to be Mr. Clean vs. Tailpipe Johnny, just to use the nicknames that float around about these two guys. Henry Waxman, gonna take a shot at being chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the most powerful positions on Capitol Hill. This is going to be very interesting to see how this shapes up and it could be very consequential for what kind of climate bill emerges from the House.

CURWOOD: Ingrid, let me ask you about the ballot initiatives, the various referenda around the country – how did those play out?

LOBET: Well, Missouri joins the long list of states that have a renewable energy requirement. It will be 15% clean energy by the year 2021. In Pennsylvania they’re going to invest $400 million in cleaning up what are the state’s original water and sewer pipes to the benefit of Chesapeake Bay. Californians voted to spend $10 billion to build a fast train – 220 miles per hour – to get them between Los Angeles and San Francisco. And 20 million egg laying chickens in California will now have to be raised in larger cages. That was an initiative that says chickens have to be able to extend their wings and turn around. Apparently it’s not unusual for chickens currently to occupy a sheet of paper’s worth of space in a group cage.

CURWOOD: Ingrid Lobet is Living on Earth’s West Coast bureau chief. Thanks Ingrid.

LOBET: You’re welcome.



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