The Obama Reversal That Might Save Your Life

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

The first anniversary of the Obama administration is only a week away. Perhaps the greatest untold story of the past year is the reversal of George Bush's eight years of environmental counterrevolution. When Bush and Cheney stopped a century-long tradition of environmental progress, the media was flabbergasted by the unrelenting intensity of the assault. But the Obama reversal has been largely unheralded (in fact, virtually unnoticed), even though it has arguably been even more intense.

Last week was a stunning example. The Obama administration received what was, I think, some of its first front-page, above-the-fold environmental coverage in the New York Times -- for the EPA's announcement of a new, health-based standard for ozone. This standard, which reverses Bush's March 2008 decision to ignore the advice of the EPA's Scientific Advisory Panel, would reduce the .075 ppm Bush standard to a number in the .060 to .070 ppm range. This would assure cleaner air in an additional 200 to 350 counties that the Bush rule failed to protect. 

But EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was not the only Obama administration leader who dealt a stunning rebuff to the Bush legacy last week. Interior Secretary Salazar also announced major reforms of the nation's oil and gas leasing rules for public lands.  Calling for "a balanced approach and a thoughtful approach," Salazar went on to say "we don't believe we ought to be drilling anywhere and everywhere" and criticized the Bush administration for what he called a "headlong rush" to drill. 

As a reference point, getting the Clinton administration to adopt new ozone rules required a massive, three-year struggle that pitted then EPA Administrator Carol Browner against the economic-policy apparatus of the White House, which was reluctant to move forward on much less stringent public-health standards. So to get these two major initiatives accomplished within the administration's first year is huge. And, as readers of my blog know, these are only two out of dozens of regulatory and science-based decisions that have taken us from "reverse course" to "full speed ahead" under President Obama. In contrast, at the end of eight years, George Bush had not managed to enact a single major regulation under the Clean Air Act that was not blocked by Congress or the courts.

But very few Americans, I'll wager, realize how much safer from toxic threats they and their families are now than they were a year ago. Nor do they know how much more secure America's natural legacy and landscapes are. President Obama is getting almost no credit.

Why? I think there are three reasons.

First, President Obama has, astutely, chosen to promote primarily those parts of his environmental policy that deal with the economic crisis, particularly jobs. Last week, the big White House environmental event wasn't about drilling or clean air -- it was the announcement that $2.3 billion in Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credits were being awarded to 183 clean-energy manufacturing projects.

Second, there's a stylistic difference between President Obama and his predecessor. My metaphor for this is the neighborhood swimming pool. George Bush was the noisy guy who swaggered onto the one-meter board, paced back and forth until he had everyone's attention, and then did a mediocre back flip. Barack Obama is the quiet guy who slips up the three-meter board, does an elegant, difficult one-and-a-half gainer, and gets noticed only after he has disappeared beneath the surface. The Bush administration usually released its regulatory assaults on the public health and public lands on Friday afternoons -- ideally before a three-day weekend -- but even its efforts to hide what it was doing managed to create an uproar.

Third, the media sees each new presidential administration through the lens of its relations with Congress and the world -- legislation and foreign policy. So Afghanistan, the economy, stimulus legislation, and health care have dominated coverage of the Obama administration (with a one-week detour to Copenhagen for climate). 

But the lack of media coverage doesn't change the reality: In just one year, President Obama has reversed most of a Bush environmental counterrevolution that lasted for eight. That means that the President now has the rest of his term to move us forward. So, yes, he deserves thanks, but we also need to recognize that the harder work -- both for him and for us -- lies ahead.