The nation’s environmental leaders are mounting a double battle against global warming, and they see President Obama’s remaining time in the White House as critical in winning both of them.
In interviews with the leaders of seven major environmental organizations, they all indicated a sense of unity and urgency on rolling out regulations to control the greenhouse-gas emissions that scientists agree cause climate change and on blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry carbon-heavy oil sands 1,700 miles from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
“I was recently with my colleagues at a quarterly CEO meeting with different groups, and I would say I feel very strongly that we’re unified that these two things go hand in hand in an ask to the White House,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They’re both very important to the community as a whole.”
The environmental chiefs don’t want one or the other. They want both. They’re lobbying Obama, who promised action on climate change in his second term but has yet to follow up, to both deny the pipeline and move quickly on Environmental Protection Agency regulations controlling carbon emissions. They reject the political theory conceived by some Democratic and Republican insiders throughout Washington that the White House may make a trade-off by approving the pipeline but simultaneously signaling bold action on climate change with EPA rules.
“I’m not going to weigh one against the other, not going to go there,” said Fred Krupp, who has been the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the most influential environmental groups, for almost 30 years. “It shouldn’t be one or the other. I think he should get both of them right.”
Krupp’s comments may surprise some in the environmental community, because EDF has been relatively quiet on the pipeline compared with other groups interviewed for this article, including NRDC, the League of Conservation Voters, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, CREDO, and 350.org.
“I could imagine EDF making a trade-off, because they’ve been pretty quiet on the pipeline, and they have a history of making trade-offs,” said Michael Kieschnick, president and cofounder of CREDO Mobile, a wireless phone company that forcefully advocates for progressive causes, especially climate change.
In a mostly organic manner, the organizations have divided up the labor. Leading the way on the Keystone XL pipeline have been CREDO; 350.org, a global environmental group founded in 2007 by author Bill McKibben; and the Sierra Club. All three groups have pledged to carry out an act of civil disobedience (in other words: get arrested) to protest the project.
EDF and NRDC are especially focused on lobbying EPA to get going on what are poised to be the most complicated, most litigated, and most contentious regulations the agency has rolled out in its 43-year history.
“This is one issue where [Obama] has executive authority under the Clean Air Act, and our No. 1 ask is to get him to use that authority to reduce emissions from existing power plants,” Beinecke said. “The single largest carbon-reduction potential is from the power-plant rule.”
CREDO’s Kieschnick acknowledged that EPA rules have a greater potential to cut carbon emissions than would denial of the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I would say that if you would add up all the regulations, all the coal regulations, mercury regulations, ozone, plus the new and existing [rules for carbon emissions], numerically they would have a bigger impact done correctly than a yes/no decision on Keystone,” he said.
Kieschnick has attended private events recently where he said he asked Obama directly about the pipeline and the EPA rules. On Keystone, the president told him he hasn’t made a decision. On pending rules controlling carbon emissions from new plants, Obama told him EPA will issue those rules. But when Kieschnick has asked the administration about the specific rules that will have the greatest impact—those targeting current power plants—“you don’t get a useful answer,” he said. “I don’t think they’re committed to issuing one on existing power plants.”
That’s the irony the community is facing. With scientists reporting last month that the planet has reached a grim milestone in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, environmentalists are more united than ever behind their goals. And yet they face more political roadblocks than ever in Washington in getting something big done. Congress is gridlocked and is not poised to do anything significant on climate-change policy. Obama has been quiet in the first six months of his second term, after promising a lot.
“The president himself needs to become a much stronger voice on the urgency of this matter,” said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Without that, I don’t think we’re going to get the kind of traction that we desperately need to get.”