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Beyond Incoherent

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Last September at the Clinton Global Initiative, the singer Bono called out American oil companies and the American Petroleum Institute's legal challenge to U.S. regulations requiring oil and mining companies to reveal the terms of their concessions with foreign governments.

Bono argued that until API intervened, the U.S. was playing a major positive role in combating corruption in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but that the API lawsuit had undone enormously beneficial rules. "We know corruption is killing more kids than TB, AIDS, and malaria put together. There is a vaccine and it's called transparency," said Bono.

Cell phone entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim agreed, saying, "Look, there are countries in Africa where the Finance Minister doesn't know how much money the oil companies are paying to drill. We all know what's that's about and who is getting the money."

Well, sadly the oil industry prevailed in court and the regulations were thrown out; the Securities Exchange Commission declined to appeal, and is supposed to be rewriting the regulations - but it's far from clear that they will actually do so, or that the new rules will actually require that the people of, say Nigeria, get to know what Chevron is actually paying their government. Obama gave a UN speech in 2011 praising such "transparency", but to date the White House has not signaled to the SEC that it expects a new regulation to be issued, and to be strong. This failure has prompted complaints from aides former Republican Senator Richard Lugar who worked to get the transparency requirement written into the Dodd-Frank bill but it reflects the strong desire of the oil industry and the Chamber of Commerce.

Bluntly, U.S. extractive industries want to be able to compete in the business of bribing foreign governments to give them sweetheart concessions on extracting oil, timber and minerals -- they argue that if U.S. companies don't make secret deals, dictators who want to steal the money from their people will sign deals with corporations from other countries, like China. They are already prohibited from direct bribes, by the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (which multinational corporations also hate), but if they can sign secret drilling or mining deals, then at least the people who run the government can pay themselves off -- if the terms are a secret.

This flies in the face of everything the Obama Administration stands for. It is also illegal under U.S. law. But so far the White House has not spoken out.

The failure to date of the White House to insist that the SEC follow the law and the President's policy and put the U.S. solidly on the side of exposing sleazy deals between oil/mining/timber companies and crooked kleptocrats is part of a larger incoherence -- the Administration's behavior on economic issues doesn't match the President's stated policy priorities.

Look at the Administration's posture on the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Deal. Thanks to leaks from unknown foreign governments (no Edward Snowden this time) we know that among the American priorities threatening the completion of this deal is an insistence on the empowerment of corporations to use trade treaties to challenge a wide variety of environmental and other domestic safety net standards, along an insistence on patent rules that would drive drug prices higher in foreign markets that currently permit greater competition than the U.S.

The President has said, in discussing the Keystone Pipeline, that he will not approve it if the net effect is to increase global carbon emissions. But the U.S. Trade Representative's office is pushing European governments to weaken Fuel Quality Directive designed to achieve exactly the same result for crude oil shipments to Europe, leading to a protest by the Congressional Climate Task Force led by RI Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and California Representative Henry Waxman.

The President has campaigned strongly in favor of a revival of manufacturing, and gave a stirring speech earlier this month explaining why economic inequality is one of the defining challenges of the American present -- but his Energy Department has been pushing hard for increased exports not of manufactured products but of commodity natural gas and oil, in an effort to raise their prices, even though DOE's own studies show that such exports are bad for manufacturing and that the higher oil and gas prices increase inequality. And in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations the interests of automakers -- who have otherwise been a top priority and poster child for the Administration's manufacturing thrust -- have been downgraded below those of the banks.

It's hard to know how much of this devastating incoherence is due to the fact that Obama's own personal vision of economic policy is much murkier than, say, where he stands on the importance of basic human rights, and how much is a White House political calculation that major business community priorities must always be triangulated, never denied.

The evolution of energy policy strongly suggests that a warped political sensibility is a big part of the problem. There's no doubt that when Obama came to the White House, he -- and economic advisors like Larry Summers -- saw in the acceleration of a once in a lifetime energy transition away from fossil fuels a key lever to economic recovery. But under repeated hammering from the allies of Big Carbon in Congress, Obama substituted for his original vision the "all of the above" mantra which led to such incongruities as the continued give-away of federal coal in the Powder River Basin at below market lease rates, at the same time that Obama was taking enormous political heat for allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to move forward with long stymied public health regulations of the burning of that same coal in American power plants.

Most recently, Bloomberg completed an investigative report showing that Council on Environmental Quality had refused to require an analysis of the climate consequences of exporting coal, oil and natural gas -- although exactly that kind of analysis of importing tar sands oil has been the President's consistent standard for Keystone.

For a President whose governing calculus has, unavoidably, become the use of Executive Branch power, this inability to create a consistent economic policy thrust, communicate it to the public, and insist that his agencies and departments carry it out is lethal. Without it Obama's legacy cannot reflect Obama's values and priorities -- it will simply be the lowest common denominator average of a few issues (like cleaning up coal and dismantling chemical weapons) on which the President personally intervened, and a much larger number where whoever had the greatest DC lobbying clout carried the day.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."