Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was built on “hope and change.” Millions of Americans went to the polls hoping that the federal government would change its approach to many of the nation’s challenges after eight years of retreat, neglect, and inertia under President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. This was particularly true for concerns about providing greater public health protection from climate change and air pollution, while also increasing security of our energy supplies. The Bush administration gave scant attention to these challenges, and instead pursued policies designed by Big Oil and coal companies for their economic benefit—policies that ignored growing threats from climate change.
In December 2008, during President-elect Obama’s transition, the Center for American Progress proposed the “Top 10 Energy and Environment Priorities for the Obama Administration and 111th Congress.” This progressive agenda was designed to protect public health from carbon and mercury air pollution, reduce oil consumption, and simultaneously boost the economic recovery. Four years later the administration accomplished nearly all of these goals despite the worst economy in nearly 80 years and strong opposition from Big Oil, coal, and other energy interests. Unfortunately, the priorities that required congressional action did not occur, though some progress was still made in each of these areas.
Here are brief descriptions of these top 10 energy and environment priorities outlined by CAP in 2008, and their status at the end of President Obama’s first term. Shortly, we will propose the top 10 energy and environment priorities for President Obama’s second term and the 113th Congress.
Let’s look at each of the above priorities in greater detail.
Wish they all could be California cars
On his seventh day in office, President Obama launched the development of the first improved fuel economy standards in 20 years. His administration, supported by 13 major auto companies, the United Auto Workers, the state of California, and environmentalists, promulgated rules to double automobile fuel economy by 2025 while slashing carbon pollution by 6 billion tons. The modern standards will save drivers $8,200 in lower gasoline purchases over the life of their 2025 vehicle, and will reduce oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels per day.
The White House also adopted the first ever efficiency and carbon pollution standards for commercial trucks, vans, and other heavy vehicles. According to the White House, the new standards will “save over 500 million barrels of oil and save vehicle owners and operators an estimated $50 billion in fuel costs.”
Thanks to these standards, the average fuel economy of cars and light duty trucks (SUVs, minivans) was 23.9 miles per gallon in 2012, the highest ever, according to a University of Michigan analysis.
Take first step to limit carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act
Global warming is a real and present danger
In addition to setting the first limits on carbon pollution from motor vehicles, the Obama administration also made the “endangerment finding” for greenhouse gas pollutants under the Clean Air Act, as recommended by Environmental Protection Agency scientists. President Bush refused to make this finding during his administration despite the strong recommendation by then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. The endangerment finding is a critical step in the process of establishing limits on carbon pollution from power plants and other large sources.
Invest in clean energy as part of economic recovery plan
Green stimulus and recovery
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in February 2009, included $90 billion in grants, tax incentives, and loan guarantees to increase investments in clean energy. This was the largest clean-energy program in history. It included assistance for wind and solar electricity generation, advanced batteries, public transportation, advanced energy research, and many other clean energy projects.
Case in point: The Recovery Act, which financed weatherization to make nearly 900,000 homes of low-income families more energy efficient, saving an annual average of $400 per household in lower energy costs. The act also “supported 30 new advanced battery and electric vehicle component plants opening across the country so that, by 2015, the U.S. will be able to produce enough batteries and components to support one million hybrid and electric vehicles.”
Slash mercury pollution from power plants
The Clean Air Act of 1990 required major industrial polluters to severely limit their emission of toxic and hazardous air pollutants. The George W. Bush administration’s mercury reduction standard for power plants—the largest domestic emitter— was struck down by the federal courts because it was too weak. In December 2011 the Obama administration finalized a mercury and toxic pollution standard for power plants that will slash this neurotoxin by 90 percent. Additionally, the standard will save at least an estimated 11,000 lives and prevent 130,000 asthma attacks annually. The mercury standard for power plants will also generate up to $90 billion in net economic benefits from saved lives, reduced health care costs, and fewer missed work days.
In addition, on December 20, 2012, the EPA finalized mercury and toxic pollution-reduction standards for industrial boilers, incinerators, and cement kilns. The new standards for the first two sources will:
- “Avoid up to 8,100 premature deaths, 5,100 heart attacks, and 52,000 asthma attacks [annually]”
- Enable Americans to “receive between $13 and $29 in health benefits for every dollar spent to meet the final standards”
The new pollution-reduction standard for cement kilns will cut mercury pollution by 93 percent and other toxic pollutants by more than 80 percent. Although the cement kiln safeguards provide new public protections, the American Lung Association determined that “industry pressure resulted in weaker standards and delayed implementation.”