Colorado conservation groups fear recent Obama decisions will demotivate environmental base

By David O. Williams
Real AspenSeptember 8, 2011
Even before tonight's jobs speech, conservation groups in Colorado and across the Rocky Mountain West say it's clear President Barack Obama has chosen polluting industry jobs over other employment sectors, demoralizing the environmental base ahead of the 2012 campaign.

Last week's decision by the Obama administration to shelve tougher EPA smog standards, coming hard on the heels of the State Department's nod to the Keystone XL pipeline, has many mainstream environmentalists wondering if young, green voters will turn out for Obama next year the way they did in 2008.

“[The smog decision's] a huge mistake politically, and I don't understand it at all,” Dr. Brian Moench, president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, told the Colorado Independent. “Unless they're calculating that by doing this they will capture campaign funds from the polluting industry that would have gone to the Republicans, and I don't even see that as a possibility.”
President Barack Obama.

According to EPA estimates, the tougher smog rules recommended by an independent scientific panel would have saved 12,000 lives by 2020 and created $17 billion in economic benefits -- from health care savings to jobs in the pollution-control industry.

As Republican in Congress, including members of Colorado's delegation, call for even more regulatory rollbacks for the oil and gas industry to create jobs, polls on the ground in Colorado show voters don't want to improve the economy at the expense of the environment.

And a new report from Headwaters Economics analyzing federal labor statistics (pdf) finds that the oil and gas industry is doing just fine in the current regulatory environment.

“During this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the energy industry has boomed, adding roughly 10,000 jobs a month, and drilling activity is approaching a 30-year high,” according to the report. “This activity already has increased so quickly this year that the sector is starting to fear shortages of skilled labor and machinery.”

In Colorado, where former Gov. Bill Ritter's “New Energy Economy” focused on conservation and renewables has in some ways been the sole economic bright spot, observers say that the White House has shown some environmental leadership, but ultimately not nearly enough.

Starting with the climate bill …

Colorado Conservation Voters Executive Director Pete Maysmith cited as a positive Obama's much tougher CAFE (gas mileage) standards for automakers. Others point to a long list of disappointments dating back to the failure in 2009 of a comprehensive climate bill, saying the administration has basically given back any gains from increased vehicle mileage.

“Since the climate bill in particular or moving forward from there, there has been this clear indication that all too often actions to better protect our air and water and address climate change are not the top priority of this administration and are at risk of being jettisoned away,” Maysmith said.

In an interview with the Colorado Independent on energy topics last spring, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi placed blame on both the Senate and environmentalists for the failure of the Waxman-Markey climate bill that narrowly cleared the House.

“The House passes a bill; the Senate passes a bill. That's the way it works,” Pelosi said. “They can do something different. It wasn't theology for us. We always thought there'd be something less coming in from the Senate; we didn't think there'd be nothing.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

And she added environmentalists should have lobbied the Senate harder. Now those groups are dejected by the missed opportunity that may have set the tone for future setbacks.

“I've been very clear to the [conservation] community,” Pelosi said, “They really had to work the Senate a lot harder than they did.”

‘The alternative is much worse'

But while environmentalists may be disaffected by the latest Obama administration actions, front-running Republican presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said during Wednesday night's GOP primary debate that “the science is not settled on [human-caused climate change]. The idea that we would put Americans' economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet, to me, is just nonsense.”

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was the only GOP candidate Wednesday night who said Republicans can't win in 2012 by denying the body of scientific evidence.

“[Perry's] an environmental clown, so the alternative [to Obama] is much worse,” Utah physician Moench said of the president's recent decisions. “But it's going to affect people's willingness to try and work at the grassroots level, to donate. It will affect turnout to a certain degree and it's certainly going to have an effect on turnout for younger voters who traditionally are more in tune with environmental concerns.”

Maysmith said the smog ruling in particular appeared to be more of a political decision than an economic one.

“I'd call it a political decision that indicated some lack of willingness to stand by one's principles in the face of shout radio and the right-wing tea partiers in Congress, and that is a bit mystifying and certainly frustrating,” Maysmith said.

He added it's ironic that at a time when the Republican Party is regrettably swinging more and more to the right, denying science and becoming increasingly shrill, the White House isn't standing up for common-sense environmental policy.

“For people who care about our air and our water, many of them are going to look at someone like candidate Perry and think, ‘No way, that's not an option,'” Maysmith said. “At that exact moment they're going to look at some of these decisions coming out of the White House and they're going to inevitably be deeply disappointed in them. And it will have the effect in some instances of depressing energy and enthusiasm for the 2012 campaign.”

Follow David O. Williams on Twitter

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