Obama’s record on Western environmental issues

  • Photo illustration, Barack Obama in Death Valley.

    Istock, White house photo office
  • President Barack Obama, looking slightly uncomfortable in a cowboy hat a supporter handed him during a campaign stop in 2007.

    LM Otero, AP
  • Jared Blumenfeld, EPA Region 9 administrator, addresses the crowd at a rally outside EPA headquarters in San Francisco last January that called for environmental justice for Kettleman City and other communities.

    Bradley Angel
  • U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaks during a public meeting on offshore drilling in April 2009. A year later, the Obama administration would propose increasing offshore drilling just days before the Gulf oil spill.

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Desert tortoise pens at the Ivanpah site in the Mojave Desert.

    Bureau of Land Management
  • An artist's rendering of solar panels on the site.

    Brightsource Energy

In the late fall of 2008, the staff of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility gathered at the Airlie Retreat Center in Virginia's horse country to plot strategies for a new day dawning: Barack Obama had just been elected president, promising fresh progress on issues that had frustrated environmentalists throughout the eight years of George W. Bush. Jeffrey Ruch, PEER's executive director, didn't want to waste any time. "The focus of all of our discussions was how to take advantage of the new green Obama administration," he says. "We were going over all the ground that Clinton had gained, all that had been lost under Bush, and focusing on what could be revived."

PEER, Ruch says, "acts as a shelter for battered staff -- people come to us and say, 'So-and-so is being persecuted, please intervene and stop it.' " The group also monitors morale within the federal agencies that enforce environmental laws. In the Bush era, PEER defended muzzled biologists and stood up for whistleblowers; the group also helped expose how mid-level managers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rewrote scientific data. Ruch and his cohorts believed the "culture of fear" the U.S. Inspector General found inside Bush's Department of Interior would be replaced by one of transparency and respect for science; they predicted that the Environmental Protection Agency -- which, under President Bill Clinton, "affirmatively intervened" when states failed to enforce the Clean Air and Water acts -- would once again seize stalled cases from scofflaw states.

"We talked about all the 'overfile' petitions we'd give to U.S. EPA to go to the states and say, 'Hey, what the heck is going on?' " Ruch remembers. "We talked about how long it would take to do that, and made sure everybody had templates to move forward efficiently. We strategized about how to induce the new administration to appoint whistleblowers -- to bring back reformers who had been pushed out in the previous administration. We were optimistic, even to the point of enthusiasm."

About a month later, Obama started making nominations for key posts at the federal agencies. Ruch and his staff envisioned dream teams, including a plain-spoken Westerner, Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva, for Interior secretary. PEER was among 106 environmental groups that endorsed Grijalva; they liked his strong stands on issues like mining reform and endangered species protection. And it didn't seem like a pipedream: Interior secretary usually goes to a Westerner, twice in the last century to an Arizonan. Grijalva had served on the House Natural Resources Committee, and as a Latino, he fit into the new administration's interest in cabinet diversity. Sources inside Obama's transition team confirmed that Grijalva was high on the short list.

But on Dec. 17, 2008, Obama announced that he had picked another Westerner instead: the Stetson-wearing descendent of a long line of ranchers, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar.

"When Salazar bounded out in that (debut) press conference wearing his cowboy hat, saying in his statement that 'my top priority as secretary of the Interior is energy independence' -- he compared it to the Moon shot -- I thought, 'This guy is going to make Gale Norton (Bush's first Interior secretary) sound like John Muir,' " Ruch says.

Ruch's take on Western environmental politics, coming from PEER's Washington, D.C., headquarters, might seem a little hyperbolic. But many Western environmental groups backed Grijalva, too, among them Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Pacific Biodiversity Institute. And several of them took Salazar's appointment hard. "He was picked because he'd prioritize energy development on public lands," says Kierán Suckling, the outspoken executive director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. Suckling now sees that moment as a harbinger of failure: "Obama," he says, "has either declined to lead or led in the wrong direction on virtually every issue that matters."

Suckling is disappointed that the Obama administration so far has replicated the Bush decisions "on wolves and grizzly bears, on the Sacramento Bay Delta, on sage grouse." He had high hopes, he says, for Jane Lubchenco, the Oregon marine biologist Obama picked to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but wonders why she ended up telling Congress that breaching the Snake River dams to save salmon was "an option of last resort."

Worst of all, Suckling says, Obama has failed to articulate a clear policy on greenhouse gases. "He never used the bully pulpit to go out and twist arms and make something happen on climate," Suckling says. "He never told Congress what to do."

Colleen Cabot
Colleen Cabot Subscriber
Feb 14, 2011 01:51 PM
This is excellent reporting. Took me inside the agencies, gave me straight information on the evolving policies. I was getting pretty disheartened with Pres. Obama's seeming disconnection with the West and many public lands issues. Pleased to see all that is happening.

But still pretty dismayed with the recent decisions on GMO, field ready crops. Any insight into this trend?
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Feb 14, 2011 01:56 PM
Hi Colleen -- thanks for your comment. I just posted a little story last week about the USDA decisions on GMOs. My understanding is that while USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is certainly not anti-GM, he was pursuing more of a coexistence strategy until he was leaned on rather heavily by both the administration (trying to be more biz-friendly) and Congress. Here's a link to the piece I wrote. (pre-ethanol decision, but it still holds true) http://www.hcn.org/[…]/usda-to-farmers-plant-genetically-modified-crops

-Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor.
Paul Chuljian
Paul Chuljian Subscriber
Feb 16, 2011 08:12 PM
Excellent article. It gave me a much more balanced view of why things have not moved too fast on western environmental issues. Loved the in depth format and the sidebars with the agency stories. This is why I support you guys 100%. Keep it up.
Colleen Cabot
Colleen Cabot Subscriber
Feb 16, 2011 11:12 PM
thanks, stephanie, for the inside of the GMO story.
Gregory J Reis
Gregory J Reis
Feb 20, 2011 03:28 PM
BLM's Brady says "there is no way a state like California is going to meet its goal of generating 33 % of its electricity from renewable sources without utility-scale projects. It's just not possible."

I've seen assertions like this before, but I've never seen anyone provide any evidence to back them up. From my experience, it's just not true, and I'm getting tired of seeing it become a mantra. Since 2001, I've generated an average of 46% of my electricity from solar panels on my roof. In another year or two the system will have paid for itself. If every residential unit in the state had this very affordable investment (I didn't even own a car when I had the system installed and was making under $30K/yr), plus warehouses, malls, parking lots, and big-box stores, why shouldn't we expect to generate more like 50% of our electricity without utility-scale projects? All we need are the right incentives and the political will to stand up to the utilities to implement them. CEQA already requires mitigation of cumulative impacts--if California truly followed this law, any new project proponent should have to offset his/her electricity use by generating enough electricity for the project. If 50% were generated onsite, the other 50% would have to be generated through partnerships with neighbors. Proposed increases in water use should be mitigated the same way, with investment in conservation/recycling/stormwater capture.

Plus the opportunities for utility-scale projects on disturbed lands are enormous. Converting the Westlands Water District from irrigated agriculture to solar PV generation would not only help solve many of the Delta's problems described by Mark Jenkins in a previous issue (and referred to in a letter to the editor in this issue), but it would be a smooth transition in use for this increasingly salinized area that will eventually go out of production anyway.

Back to the point--when including my electricity conservation efforts with my PV generation, my net electricity use has decreased by about 60%. Just imagine if everyone in California did this! It isn't hard or expensive and doesn't require the development of pristine desert. However, it doesn't make the utilities money.
Christy Klinger
Christy Klinger Subscriber
Feb 28, 2011 10:10 PM
I take exception with the photo, or 'artists rendering...' of the solar panels on page 18 of this issue. I'm not sure if the vegetation was meant to be noxious weeds or native veg; its hard to tell. What I can tell you is that solar developments are scraped clean of any and all vegetation, and kept cleared of all veg, rendering the area useless as habitat for all wildlife. Renewable energy is needed, and solar is coming, but don't mislead people to believe these panels are compatable with wildlife habitat. Solar needs to be sited on disturbed land and/or urban roof-tops.
Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Mar 03, 2011 09:55 AM
Christy -- That's an excellent point. The photo is indeed an artist's rendering of a solar development, the Ivanpah facility, and it was supplied by the developer, BrightSource Energy. In response to pressure from environmental groups and local conservationists, the BLM required that BrightSource reduce the project's impact on vegetation, and BrightSource now says in its PR materials that Ivanpah has been re-designed to "preserve as much vegetation as possible"; the photo is meant to show that the mirrors will share space with native plants. We'll see as the mirrors go up whether BrightSource remains true to that promise.
Ken Smith
Ken Smith Subscriber
Mar 19, 2011 05:01 PM
Does anyone know where the photo was taken? It looks like Racetrack to me but that area (in the past, at least) wasn't too easy to get to unless the "road" had been graded. Beautiful shot of Death Valley in any case.