Voters who place a high importance on environmental protection when choosing candidates to support are likely to be leery of Barack Obama.
In July 2007, it came as a shock to those who call the shores of Lake Michigan home to learn that British Petroleum (BP) had won approval from Indiana's Department of Environment Management -- with no opposition from the U.S. EPA -- to increase discharges of ammonia and toxin-containing solids by 54% and 35% respectively, directly into Lake Michigan from its Whiting, Indiana, refinery.
This particular corner of Lake Michigan, at the border of Illinois and Indiana, had been a cesspool of pollution from electric plants and steel mills for decades. Only the persistent application of environmental protections in recent years has succeeded in reducing pollution and returning these waters -- and all of Lake Michigan -- to higher levels of safety and cleanliness. The BP proposal could reverse years of hard work and create a huge environmental risk to the Lake's fishery, as well as a health risk to the drinking supply of more than 35 million people.
Many environmental groups, as well as state, local, and national leaders, moved into action to try to prevent BP from going ahead with its plans. H. Con. Res. 187 condemned BP for its plan and passed the U.S. Congress by a bipartisan vote of 386-26. Congressman Peter J. Roskam (R-IL) came out against the action. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) also condemned the plan.
So where was Senator/Candidate Obama? Like most of the invited legislators, he sent staff to attend an EPA Region 5 meeting on August 14 to discuss the issue. On August 15, he sent a letter to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer -- a committee on which he sits -- asking that the committee "hold a hearing to examine the recent agreement between the State of Indiana and the BP Whiting Refinery." The letter identifies "the challenges faced by the United States as we pursue the dual goals of improved energy security and environmental restoration."
With this tepid response, Senator Obama failed to take a stand with many of his constituents (12,000 signatures on petitions as of July 26), or with his fellow senator from Illinois and a vast majority of lawmakers in the U.S. Congress to halt this action.
More disturbing is Candidate Obama's disconnect between his stated energy and environmental aims, and some of his words and actions. Candidate Obama says "We have to start moving away from that dirty, dwindling fossil fuel [oil] altogether." Yet he reintroduced The Coal to Liquid Fuel Act of 2007, thus promoting one of the dirtiest forms of fuel available. This is one action Senator Obama has taken to help his constituents -- the ones who produce coal in the southern part of the state. Money is the only green in this action.
According to the AP, Candidate Obama said during a campaign stop in Durham, New Hampshire, that "I believe we still have a chance to pass on a planet to our children that is cleaner and safer and more prosperous than we found it. This is our generation's moment to save future generations from global catastrophe.'' However, Candidate Obama also wants to include nuclear energy in the mix. It's no wonder -- he has received $191,000 in campaign contributions from Exelon, a leading producer of nuclear power, including $21,500 from 11 of 13 of Exelon's corporate officers. Although Senator Obama proposed legislation in 2006 requiring nuclear power plants to report leaks, again, this measure is rather tepid. It doesn't halt nuclear energy or call for shutdowns. It only calls for reporting. If the energy source that created the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters represents one of his ideas for saving future generations from global catastrophe, I'd like a better definition of what he thinks catastrophe is.
Candidate Obama's obsession with energy independence makes his support of environmental protection far from solid. It would also appear that the support he has received from the nuclear power industry could affect his work on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and factor into his policies as president.
Most chilling of all is an AP report on a visit Candidate Obama made to Reno, Nevada, at the end of May 2007. Pledging to restore the authority of the EPA, Candidate Obama said that the weakening of environmental regulations and demoralization of the EPA have been accomplished in recent years through the executive orders of President Bush. "That means President Obama can reverse them by executive order," Obama told a Reno crowd. To hear a candidate rail against the demoralizing effects of executive decrees on federal agencies (not to mention the health of democracy) say that he'd use such orders for what he thinks is right is hypocritical and downright scary.
Candidate Obama has proven to be inspirational to many who seek change in this country. When looking at Senator Obama's response to the crisis on Lake Michigan, however, his actions are hardly bold or inspiring. His rhetoric on the environment is belied by some of the legislation he has supported, and those concerned about the dangers of nuclear power have cause for concern over his relationship with Exelon. Can Candidate Obama truly fulfill the hopes of his supporters when he sounds just like the head of the regime they want to change? Believe if you want, but keep your wits about you.