Through the years: Here’s what to read on Obama’s presidency

High Country News stories show how Obama wrangled the West.


President Barack Obama’s environmental record reflects an inclination toward compromise and incremental progress: Yet Obama may well be remembered as the first leader to seriously address the foremost environmental issue of our times — climate change. Though he oversaw surges in oil and gas production, he embraced clean energy and tackled greenhouse gas emissions, drawing deep opposition from the fossil fuel industry along the way.

Now comes a president whose Cabinet choices appear innately friendly to extractives and hostile to public lands and environmental protections. The Republican-backed Trump administration has pledged to roll back as many of Obama’s decisions as it can. Still, it may prove hard for it to undo all the accomplishments of the 44th president.

Here are a collection of crucial stories written through the years of Obama’s presidency, hand-picked by High Country News editors:

2008: A historical inauguration

A political speech the West needs to hear HCN imagines – and delivers – the kind of speech about our energy future that the West needs to hear from its next president.

A fractured party The Republican Party, struggling with infighting and lacking a coherent vision may find new life — or self-destruction — in the West’s green politics.

What a Mess Environmentalists look at the Bush administration’s effects on the Western environment and considers what can be done to heal the damage.

On Obama’s coattails Westerners inspired by Barack Obama have a right to feel giddy: The history-making wave that swept the Democrat into the presidency Nov. 4 lifted a surprising number of other Democrats into offices that had long been held by Republicans. The winning Democrats promise to be better on protecting the environment, more supportive of clean energy and more even-handed on immigration and other Western issues.

Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009.
Jeffrey Lowy/Flickr user

2009: Dems bolstered by majority, enlist environmental ties

Drilling the Democrats Will the new administration slow the gas boom or speed it up? When it comes to natural gas, the Democrats seem almost as enthusiastic about drilling here and now as their Republican counterparts.

Enviros suffer first major setback in Obama era The environmental movement has just fallen short of a major goal, for the first time in the new green-trending era of Obama and the ramped-up Democrats in Congress.

Mountain of doubt Will the country’s only planned nuclear waste dump survive Obama? Fueling his presidential bid, Obama affirmed his stark opposition to the long-delayed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. 

Champions go both ways Obama’s federal appointees share a green streak. Many people with ties to environmental groups or other conservation efforts have been named to fill senior positions in the 44th’s administration.

Salmon Salvation Obama’s new political order, backed by the legal acumen of Judge James Redden, may help the Northwest’s salmon survive and end the era of the Lower Snake River dams.

Obama’s platter of greens The Obama administration has now enlisted at least 34 people who have direct ties to environmental groups or clear leanings in that direction.

Red light, green light After eight years of frustration with President George W. Bush, environmentalists are getting traction. 

Pat Bagely/Cagle Cartoons

2010: The first monuments of many

Arizona: Obama’s curse? When Obama plucked Janet Napolitano out of the governor’s seat to run Homeland Security, he surrendered Arizona to the ultra-conservatives. The Tea Party hasn’t shaken up politics there like it has elsewhere, perhaps because Arizona’s mainstream politics already resemble those of the Tea Party.

The BLM’s conservation experiment Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directs agency to put conservation first — in some places. 

The trouble with monuments, Obama learns, is that designations bring more commercialism and less solitude.

A river again? Obama’s EPA extends protection to L.A.’s urban watershed — but that doesn’t mean his pledge to put science over politics will bring long-term progress to the nation’s water quality.

The EPA swings into action, to industry’s dismay. The Obama administration may want to see greenhouse legislation come from Congress first, before imposing EPA regulations — but given health care, the war on terrorism and other brouhahas, the agency might well end up beating Congress to the punch.

Illustration by Dave Gralund

2011: Incremental progress, destructive fires

Obama message-control blocks journalists covering the environment  It makes sense that the feds would want to carefully frame discussions of politicized and controversial topics. But inhibited access to front-line scientists, decision-makers and public officials means that too often environment and science news reaches reporters at best in telephone press conferences, and at worst in prepared statements and press releases, some so cryptic they could qualify as verbal Rorshachs.

Obama’s record on Western environmental issues Not everybody is happy, but the Obama administration is making slow but steady progress in dealing with the West’s environmental issues.

Cattlemen struggle against giant meatpackers and economic squeezes Ranchers battle gigantic meatpackers to get a fair price for cattle in a changing economy.

Good policy and good intentions won’t stop big wildfires Fire activity in the West has increased sharply since the 1980s, but today’s mega-fires tend to burn more acres at a high severity. The Forest Service and other federal agencies have allowed managers to make decisions based on forest health rather than expedience— but what’s permitted on paper and what happens on the ground are often very different.

Obama, looking slightly uncomfortable wearing a cowboy hat a supporter handed him during a campaign stop.
LM Otero/AP

2012: Obama’s oil and gas boom

The BLM struggles to get ahead of oil and gas development in the West The agency’s slow, bureaucratic process faces conflicts when resources require a closer look— but the criteria were intentionally left open to interpretation, and field and state BLM offices were given broad discretion to decide what local conditions warrant. That flexibility cuts both ways.

Obama praises natural gas, but is there enough to satisfy U.S. demand? In his State of the Union speech, Obama tries to please everyone, but even his renewable energy proposals rely on finding more natural gas than may exist.

Obama’s energy love fest Environmental regulation and protection have been politically thorny territories for Obama, but he chooses his words carefully, lauding the potential of “clean energy.” It’s the kind of catch-all Obama so favors — the kind that allows him to throw almost everyone —wind, solar, biomass, hydropower, nuclear power, efficient natural gas, and “clean coal” — a bone.

In Nevada speaking about solar energy.
U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Brian Ybarbo

2013: The energy pendulum swings

In his State of the Union address, Obama teases a strong environmental agenda. He told Congress: If lawmakers can’t come up with market-based ways to cut greenhouse gasses, his administration will get the job done itself.

Can Sally Jewell interest a new generation in public lands? The chief of Recreation Equipment Inc. has worked hard to support conservation and get people of all ages and colors outside. Can she do the same at the Department of Interior? 

Obama’s love letter to natural gas The political and practical potential of gas in the climate fight precedes his most effective environmental action: Utah and other states like the new EPA regulations on vehicle emissions.

Western GOP governors buck their party on Obamacare How three Western Republicans are defying party ideology by accepting the Medicaid expansion.

President Barack Obama wipes sweat from his brow during a major speech at Georgetown University in June in which he unveiled his plan on climate change, which relies heavily on natural gas.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

2014: Monument maker

Obama names New Mexico’s Organ Mountains, a designation more about politics than cacti; declares new national monument in the mountains above Los Angeles that qualifies for federal funding for local improvements — and designates his largest monument yet The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, nearly half a million acres of rugged land above Las Cruces in southern New Mexico.

Has the Obama administration hobbled the Endangered Species Act? A new policy may set the law back half a century.

Meanwhile, national security runs roughshod over the Arizona wild, along a border out of control.

Border Patrol agents detain suspected undocumented immigrants in January near Sells, Arizona, on the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation.
Will Seberger

2015: A difficult year for endangered species and extractive industries

Can drilling and recreation get along in Moab, Utah? The BLM unveils the unprecedented plan to balance oil and gas with conservation in canyon country.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership could pipe in new business for the Western gas industry By lowering tariffs and regulatory hurdles, the deal could make it easier to sell natural gas to Japan.

An unprecedented collaborative effort and lots of tax dollars be enough to finally save sage grouse? The Endangered Species Act’s biggest experiment

Western states wrestle with Obama’s Clean Power Plan Closed-door sessions on the EPA’s proposal to cut coal-fired power plant emissions. And the Supreme Court asks: Should the EPA have considered how expensive the new regs would be for operators? 

Green energy’s dirty secret and the campaign against coal Industrial solar and wind endanger wildlife but are getting more support than ever. A dispatch from where “keep it in the ground” meets “keep the lights on,” begins to raise another question: Does Obama’s order on climate overlook a major source of greenhouse gases?

Who really killed Keystone? An unusual coalition is fighting new fossil fuel infrastructure, and they’re starting to win.

The man behind the curtain John Podesta’s role in turning Obama around on climate and monuments.

President Barack Obama and White House counselor John Podesta walk near the Washington Monument last May. Podesta is behind many second-term conservation achievements for both Obama and Bill Clinton.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP Photo

2016: The fall of Old King Coal and fixing old wrongs.

Feds announce moratorium on new coal leases. Meanwhile, the Interior department asks Alaska Natives which areas are too sensitive to drill.

Clean Power Plan stay spurs enviros into action The unexpected stay, plus attempts to block Obama from appointing a Supreme Court justice, energized greens.

For over a century, federal law has split Native American land holdings into tiny pieces. A settlement unites some of the splinters, but at a steep cost.  Can a legal victory make Indian Country whole again?

Obama administration to continue Navajo Nation uranium cleanup The EPA has already spent $100 million to remediate decades of mining.

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