By the time you are reading this, Trump will be president of the United States. Soon Scott Pruitt will be head of the EPA (or behead the EPA). As I’m writing this, Obama is singing his swan song and making his final goodbyes as President. The gulf of time between me writing and you reading is small but salient. It is the time to reflect upon what it is Obama leaves in his wake. Contradiction has characterized so many aspects of Obama’s presidency, but what of his environmental record? Well – it’s complicated.
To the detriment of conservation efforts, oil and gas energy development was the cornerstone of Obama’s environmental policy during his first term. In fact, Reagan, Bush Senior and Junior, and Clinton all protected far more land than Obama from 2008 to 2012.6,314,904 acres of land was leased for oil and gas extraction, compared to just 2,587,354 acres permanently protected. Even up until 2013 and 2014, Obama’s record on preserving nature looked bleak. However, in an unparalleled turn-around during his second term, Obama created federal protections for more land than any other president in American history. The environmental and historical impacts of this legacy cannot be understated, but conservation was the easiest road Obama could have possibly taken to securing his name among the naturalist presidents.
But conservation did not prevent the wide-scale fracking and offshore drilling increases under Obama’s watch, a number of which he even promoted.
Most of the protections Obama gave were done with a swipe of a pen due to the executive powers under the Antiquities Act, and not congressional approval. Now of course just because it was easy doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve credit – it required will, it furthered partisan debates on national parks and monuments, and will have lasting effects on the U.S. and world at large. But conservation did not prevent the wide-scale fracking and offshore drilling increases under Obama’s watch, a number of which he even promoted.
The biggest oil boom in American history has happened under Obama’s presidency. Private investment is credited for the boom, but the huge increase in offshore drilling and fracking has contributed considerably to the uptick in domestic energy production. Fracking will remain a dark stain on this administration’s energy policies, with relatively little success in regulating the highly dangerous method for extracting natural gas. Partly the fault lies with Republicans in congress, and recently Obama has made some headway with banning new drilling in areas of the Atlantic and Arctic, but areas such as the Gulf of Mexico are still thriving, and destroying. His recent actions are too little, too late.1,200 offshore drilling applications between 2010 and 2014 alone were approved.
Obama’s biggest environmental achievements were the Paris Climate Agreement and the Clean Power Plan (CPP). The CPP is currently involved in legal disputes, so the impact of that remains to be seen, but it is the central legislation at the heart of the U.S.’s commitment to the Paris agreement. If it survives the courts and Trump’s attacks, it will “cut significant amounts of power plant carbon pollution”. However, the plan has been criticized for being too narrowly focused on only carbon and seeking to increase nuclear and natural gas energy, rather than easing a transition into greener energy sources. But it’s a bit of unfair criticism to make. Our most pressing environmental issue of today is global warming, and so our number one priority is to get carbon down drastically. I can understand why this administration would seek to focus on this exclusively. My most worrying concern about the CPP is fragility. It has already faced and is continuing to do so fierce legal backlash, and the responsibility for enforcing the law falls under the EPA’s jurisdiction, an agency whose priorities and functions vary widely from one administration to another. It is also now an agency in the claws of President-Elect Trump.
Even the Paris Climate Agreement is hotly debated, but it cannot be denied it is a momentous milestone in global action on climate change. America’s role in the international cooperation cemented Obama as one of the most important presidents on environmental action. The totality of his presidency, however, remains conflicting, even confusing at times. It is sometimes difficult to weigh the balances of his actions, or inaction in some cases, and come to a solid judgment. A verdict remains elusive, like a shadow you can’t make out, and of course this is not limited only to his environmental policies. With Obamacare in doubt, and the Republicans reinvigorated, the question of what will his lasting legacy be has eclipsed his time in office. Like I said, it’s complicated.
Featured image: White House