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 July 02, 2013
Obama and greens -- it's complicated (but getting better all the time?)

 Nearly a decade ago, two top green groups leapt into a closely watched Democratic Senate primary with a six-figure advertising buy for a TV spot called "Rising Star." The ad touted their preferred candidate as committed to "cleaner power plants" and a champion "who's won the tough fights for a cleaner and healthier" state.

Less than 18 months later, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois voted for the energy bill crafted by President George W. Bush that offered billions of dollars to the fossil fuel industry. As one veteran environmental strategist recalled, "It was a major, major bummer."

The complicated relationship between the president and greens, in other words, began long before the "skinny kid with a funny name" became a two-term commander in chief. The question that now faces President Obama and his environmentalist base is whether his vow to battle climate change -- delivered Tuesday with narrative flourish and scientific nuance -- is enough to change the tone of their dynamic.

To be sure, Obama's promise to limit carbon emissions from new and existing power plants using U.S. EPA authority under the Clean Air Act thrilled conservationists who view the warming planet as the singular challenge facing the nation. But many key details of how EPA would implement its rules could remain uncertain for months or even years as industry players, state attorneys general and the congressional GOP work to weaken its position.

"People are pretty deliriously happy about the speech in both its rhetorical and substantive implications," Natural Resources Defense Council Government Affairs Director David Goldston said in an interview. "Everyone also understands this is a very long process with lots of steps, and everybody is going to have to keep working."

That work will be done in the long shadow of an oil pipeline with an EPA-estimated carbon footprint that is notably smaller than that of the power plants the agency seeks to regulate.

How Obama rules on Keystone XL, not the EPA action, represents the best gauge of his climate bona fides for younger, more outside-the-Beltway green groups such as 350.org. Even the mainline environmentalists who first rallied for him in the 2004 Illinois Senate primary say they would see approval of the oil sands crude pipeline as a renunciation of the very vow he made Tuesday.

"Step one: Clean up dirty power plants," Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America's capital office, said after the speech. "Step two: Reject Keystone. That would be a nice one-two punch."

Environmentalists feared a less welcome one-two punch from the White House in late 2011, when Obama punted on stronger smog standards weeks ahead of a deadline for ruling on KXL that even many of its opponents expected would end with approval of the contentious oil sands crude pipeline. But the president chose to delay KXL that year, setting up another review of the pipeline that is now set to end this fall amid an all-but-certain lobbying battle over the future of his EPA-centric emissions agenda.

"With the political realities of where Congress is at today, I don't know how you could expect more from Obama in terms of laying out a bold, aggressive plan in terms of climate change," Mark Longabaugh, a partner at the Democratic media firm Devine Mulvey Longabaugh and a former top political adviser at the League of Conservation Voters, said of Tuesday's speech in an interview.

"But I think the political reality is that with the Keystone decision coming up, the importance of this plan could be overshadowed. ... Keystone has reached such a symbolic importance that it will overshadow this extraordinary, far-reaching and bold plan he's put on the table."

In fact, even some supporters acknowledge that KXL has taken on a deep significance for green groups with Obama that outstrips its actual potential impact on the environment -- similar to the long battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

"Keystone sometimes reminds me of the way the Alaskan wilderness became a symbolic battle for the environmental community that lost all sense of proportion to its impact -- not that, independently, Keystone and the Alaskan wilderness are not important issues," Longabaugh said. "But in the battle, their scale to other issues gets lost."

Past behind him?

Obama studded his 49-minute climate speech at Georgetown University, delivered in front of pro-environment lawmakers and green movement leaders, with historical references and a scientific summation of how greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide "trap heat" in a manner that can wreak havoc with temperatures while pushing sea levels higher.

The president even clearly communicated what some in his party have had trouble doing in the wake of recent natural disasters, stating that climate change cannot be identified as the cause of individual extreme weather events but can and does amplify them (E&E Daily, May 24).

"Words matter," Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said in an interview this week. "To convey a sense of urgency, sweep and complexity is extraordinarily important."

One senior environmental group official, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity, described the spirit of the speech as aimed at countering Obama's long-running "all-of-the-above" energy sloganeering with a firm embrace of conservation.

"I think the administration may now feel they've done what they need to do to show the public that they've got what they'd consider a balanced energy policy," the official said. "Their problem was the growing frustration on the part of the environmental community and their larger base. They decided to bat it out of the park for the environmental team. They did."

The author of another environmental albatross for Obama -- the failed 2009 cap-and-trade climate bill still plagued by postmortems that questioned the White House's commitment to winning its Senate passage -- said in an interview this week that perceptions of the president's distance from environmental priorities are misguided.

"I never had any doubt that he cared about this issue" during the push for comprehensive climate legislation, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said. "He did everything he could. He was a strong ally."

The KXL gap

Obama dropped a surprise mention of the $5.3 billion KXL project in his speech, but his carefully chosen phrasing gave both friends and foes of the pipeline reasons to take heart (E&E Daily, June 26). The political impact of his decision on his relationship with environmentalists ultimately could depend on how closely he hews to the standard set Tuesday by his vow that "the net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical" as he decides whether permitting it would be in the national interest.

The environmental movement that aligned for an August 2011 anti-KXL White House sit-in contains multitudes, from pipeline-focused groups such as 350.org to bigger groups with longer to-do lists, such as NRDC and the more centrist Environmental Defense Fund. Some pipeline critics make safety and landowner rights their No. 1 issue, while others focus on the emissions threat posed by oil sands crude. Whether Obama sides with environmentalists on KXL may depend on how well they manage those disparate missions in the face of a highly motivated pro-pipeline camp that can cite polls showing public opinion is on the side of more Canadian fuel.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, yesterday urged Secretary of State John Kerry to adhere to his department's March conclusion that the greenhouse gases generated by approving KXL would not represent a major environmental impact.

"Even if EPA were correct" in challenging the State Department's emissions assessment for the pipeline, Smith wrote to Kerry, "additional carbon emissions would be exceedingly insignificant relative to current U.S. and global emissions."

Strong EPA rules for existing power plants, separate from new construction, would avert 563 million tons of U.S. carbon emissions between now and 2020, NRDC estimated in December. KXL could generate 138 million tons of U.S. carbon emissions over that same period, according to projections EPA cited in April in taking issue with State's review of the pipeline.

But League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski sought to contextualize KXL within the broader climate fight Tuesday, saying in an interview that elevating global warming as a priority "should make it more likely that at some later point in time -- again, it's a later point in time -- Keystone should be rejected, as well."