Obama on the Record

Amanda Little
Monday, July 30, 2007; 10:56 AM

In his two and a half years in the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama has been active -- even hyperactive -- on matters of energy and the environment. The Democrat from Illinois has introduced or cosponsored nearly 100 eco-related bills on issues ranging from lead poisoning and mercury emissions to auto fuel economy and biofuels promotion. Along the way, he's racked up a notable 96 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters. [Update: In February 2008, Obama's lifetime LCV score was changed to 86 -- lower than before because he missed some key votes while on the road campaigning.]

But it hasn't been all hugs and kisses between Obama and enviros. Some green activists wrinkle their noses at the senator's overarching emphasis on bipartisan consensus, insisting that real environmental change won't happen without tough partisan battles against entrenched interests. Enviros have also knocked Obama for his support of corn-derived ethanol and liquid coal, both of which would benefit industries in his home state of Illinois but do little if anything to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Are the criticisms justified? Does this frontrunner have what it takes to tackle the climate crisis and lead America to a cleaner, brighter energy future? To find some answers, I reached Obama by phone in his office in Washington, D.C., between Senate votes.

For more info on his platform and record, check out Grist's Obama fact sheet.

Q: Why should voters consider you the strongest candidate on environmental issues? What sets your green platform apart from the rest?

A: To begin with, people can look at my track record. I'm proud of the fact that one of the first sets of endorsements I received in my race for the U.S. Senate was from the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. I've since cast tough votes on behalf of the environment. For example, I voted against the "Clear Skies" bill that George Bush was promoting, despite the fact that the administration had heated up support for the bill in southern Illinois, which you know is a coal area of the country. So I think people can feel confident that I don't just talk the talk, I walk the walk.

Q: How central will energy and the environment be to your campaign?

A: I consider energy to be one of the three most important issues that we're facing domestically, along with revamping our education system and fundamentally reforming our health-care system. And the opportunities for significant change exist partly because awareness of the threat of climate change has grown rapidly over the last several years. Al Gore deserves a lot of credit for that, as do activists in the environmental community and outlets like Grist. People recognize the magnitude of the [climate] problem and are ready to take it on.

Not only is there environmental concern, but you're also seeing people who are recognizing that our dependence on fossil fuels from the Middle East is distorting our foreign policies, and that we can't sustain economically continuing dependence on a resource that is going to get more and more expensive over time. As all those things converge, we have to move boldly on energy legislation, and that's what I'll do as the next president.

Q: How central of a role do you think the issues of energy and the environment will play overall in the 2008 campaign? Will they take a backseat to Iraq?

A: Bringing the war in Iraq to a responsible end is the most pressing challenge we face, but that doesn't mean it's the only challenge we face. Reducing our dependence on foreign oil and slashing our greenhouse-gas emissions will also be defining issues in this campaign.

Q: You've consistently emphasized consensus and putting aside partisan battles. Many argue that, when it comes to climate change, the maximum of what's politically possible falls short of the minimum we need to do to solve the problem. In other words, consensus won't get us where we need to go. Will you fight the political battles needed to move the consensus on this issue, even if that means aggravating partisan rifts?

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