Environmental Groups Wait to See Definitive Action From Obama

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The abrupt resignation Saturday of White House "green jobs" adviser Van Jones has focused new attention on one of the Obama administration's top priorities: the environment.

While Jones was criticized as a left-wing zealot, the Obama team's record so far on the environment has been far from radical.

The White House's main effort has been to undo several Bush-era policies on climate control, air pollution and the regulation of roadless forests. Those actions, combined with court decisions that have struck down other rules, have given President Obama a relatively blank canvas on which to redraw U.S. environmental policy. But the administration has been cautious, leaving key issues in limbo and questions unanswered about the way it would balance environmentalism and the economy.

"The Bush administration's eight-year assault on the environment has built up a ton of demand, and that has led to tremendous opportunity -- that has yet to be seized," said Marty Hayden, a vice president at the environmental group Earthjustice.

This week, the Obama administration will have to do more, as it faces a deadline to flesh out a promise on the Chesapeake Bay.

In May, Obama ordered an overhaul for the faltering cleanup of the estuary, which remains heavily polluted 25 years after federal and state governments first pledged to save it. On Wednesday, federal agencies will announce the first drafts of their plans to do so.

Environmentalists say it will be a crucial test: How will the Environmental Protection Agency deal with pollution from farms, septic tanks and suburban lawn fertilizer? All send downstream pollution that causes "dead zones" in the Chesapeake.

But to clamp down on them -- imposing new pollution rules on farms, or vetoing new suburbs -- would mean kicking political beehives.

"What the bay has got to hear, what the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has got to hear, is that the EPA is ready to take definitive, direct action," said William C. Baker, president of the nonprofit foundation. "They've got to show us right away that they're willing to do something different."

On the campaign trail, Obama made more than 50 environmental promises, according to the watchdog site Politifact.com, as big as capping U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and as small as providing new habitat for the Osceola turkey.

Obama's administration has pleased environmental groups by spending economic stimulus money on loans for clean-energy companies and by promising to cut greenhouse gases from automobiles.

It has also sought to reverse Bush administration changes to the 2001 rule protecting "roadless" forest areas and reconsidered rules limiting pollution from cement plants.

"There's a certain thing about the continuity of government," which these moves do not respect, said Jeffrey Holmstead, an EPA official under President George W. Bush who is now with the lobbying firm Bracewell & Giuliani. He said the new administration's moves are "fundamentally inconsistent with the rule of law."

When Obama administration officials talk about the strategy they will use to write new policies, they do not talk details. Nancy Sutley, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the administration's legacy would be: "We made smart decisions based on science, based on the law, based on open and transparent processes."

One of the examples of translating these ideas into new policy has been on mountaintop coal mining, also called mountaintop removal. In March, the administration said it would reexamine dozens of pending permits for this type of mine, in which Appalachian peaks are blasted off to reach coal underneath.

Environmentalists, who said the Bush administration was too lenient with the mines, rejoiced. But weeks later, the federal government reported that 42 of the 48 permits it had examined were within the limits of environmental laws.

"We got cold-cocked," said Rob Perks of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He and other environmentalists are expecting another announcement this week, about the fate of dozens more permits. "That is really a bellwether. What happens with these . . . permits is what's going to tell if the administration is going to really change."

An even more complicated test awaits this fall, on the subject Jones had focused on: climate change and energy.

The administration, following a campaign promise, is pushing for a bill that would limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, using a system of tradable pollution credits.

Battle lines are being drawn, and activists on both sides say the administration will have to make choices.

In the climate debate, said Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association, "you will be able to see how they view the relative importance of both. And you cannot have both."

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