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

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Obama didn't rise to fame because of his gifts for partisan battling. He catapulted into the spotlight at the Democratic convention in 2004, a time when partisan battling had grown so rancorous that many were relieved to have someone -- especially an African-American of mixed parentage with a foreign-sounding name -- remind us that "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America," but only "a United States of America."

And that's exactly why Suckling never really liked him: "I voted for Hillary," he admits, "because she is a partisan warrior, and I think that's the only way to change things." Obama, he says, "may be our first extremist moderate president."

Moderation, however, has its advantages. One place to see them in action is at the Bureau of Land Management, a mostly Western agency within Interior that employs 10,000 full-time staffers and oversees 265 million surface acres and 700 million acres of mineral rights with a $1 billion annual budget.

In 2001, Bush issued an executive order requiring federal staffers to prepare a "Statement of Energy Effects" any time their actions might cause "adverse effects on energy supply, distribution, or use." It helped set a tone that prioritized mineral extraction over just about any other use of federal land. Despite Salazar's talk of energy independence, one of his first actions, in February 2009, sought to restore some balance: In a letter to the BLM's Utah director, Salazar asked for a review of the leases that had been offered during the agency's last Bush-era quarterly oil and gas lease sale, in December 2008.

Three weeks after a federal judge responded to environmentalists' lawsuits by putting a hold on 77 of the 116 lease parcels, Salazar told Utah's BLM director to pull those leases. Then Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes directed the BLM to assemble a team to investigate further: To assess air quality near the lease parcels and determine how energy development would degrade it, and to visit each site, on foot if necessary, to determine first-hand whether it was an appropriate place to drill.

In July 2009, 11 biologists, geologists, archaeologists and land managers set out to investigate the 77 leases. When they returned 10 days later, the team filed a report recommending that 52 leases be deferred for further study and eight be rescinded. A collection of parcels near Hatch Point east of Canyonlands National Park was pulled simply because drilling there would wreck the scenery.

Last May, BLM Director Bob Abbey issued a memorandum directing BLM field representatives to make a habit of scrutinizing potentially lease-worthy land for themselves. It also ordered states to develop their own management plans and submit them for Interior's approval -- plans whose effects will be actively monitored to make sure federal land is preserved for uses other than energy production. The new guidance explicitly recognizes that "in some cases, leasing of oil and gas resources may not be consistent with protection of other important resources and values."

The effects of these changes have begun to trickle in. In October, the BLM's White River field office in Colorado deferred six parcels in the proposed Big Ridge Wilderness from an upcoming lease auction pending a more thorough review of their wilderness characteristics; another four parcels were pulled for good. It also deferred another northwest Colorado parcel, in Indian Valley, on the grounds that it's "capable of contributing to the stabilization and long term recovery of sage-grouse populations." The Casper field office in Wyoming made similar decisions to defer several leases for the sake of sage grouse.

This is all new, says Nada Culver, a senior analyst with The Wilderness Society's Central Rockies office. It's all part of Salazar's directive, "and it all happened before we'd even got a chance to protest. It was kind of amazing, actually," she says. Some of the recent environmental assessments "even use the 'W' word" -- wilderness.

"There's a lot in what Interior has put forward that makes us extremely hopeful," Culver says. "A lot of us in the environmental movement are impatiently waiting to see whether it succeeds."

A lot of people in the oil and gas industry, however, are not. The Western Energy Alliance, formerly the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, blames the BLM's new decision-making process for a 79 percent decrease in new acreage offered and leased for oil and gas production. The alliance has filed two lawsuits against Interior, one contesting deferred leases and another challenging Salazar's new rules. "BLM seems unwilling to offer any parcel with any controversy, no matter how unfounded," says Kathleen Sgamma, the alliance's director of government and public affairs.

Meanwhile, renewable energy development speeds ahead on Western federal land. In the last three months of 2010, Interior green-lighted nine solar projects in California and Nevada. All were industrial-scale projects BLM identified as far enough along in the permitting process to begin construction by the end of 2010, thus meeting a deadline to apply for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds that could reimburse developers for up to 30 percent of each project's costs. (Congress has extended that deadline for another year.)

ARRA, or stimulus, funds also allowed the BLM to expand the scope of a draft environmental impact study designating 24 preferred solar development zones in six Western states. That study began in mid-2008, but picked up momentum in March 2009, when Salazar issued a secretarial order prioritizing renewable energy. Its completion in late December 2010 represents a milestone in the Obama administration's explicit renewable energy ambitions.

Ray Brady, BLM energy team manager, says morale in his corner of the agency "is higher than it has been in a long time."

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