The main inhibitor to any perception of President Obama as a radical environmentalist is his environmental record. Today's announcement on cleaner gasoline rules continues Obama's small environmental dial-turns focused on economics and short-term health improvements over sweeping attacks on climate change. If he were managing a baseball team, he'd be playing smallball — and environmentalists seem to have given up on hoping for a home run.
New standards that being proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency today focus on a subset of a subset of energy policy: reducing the amount of sulfur in refined gasoline by two-thirds. Auto manufacturers support the proposal, as it makes the exception required by vehicles in California more of a rule.
Consumers may be the first group to see an effect, however small. The Washington Post reports that the move could increase the cost for a gallon of fuel by a penny — 0.2 percent of the current national average price per gallon — though Drudge Report went with the high end of an oil industry estimate, suggesting an increase of 9 cents.
The Post describes the benefit of the change.
While gasoline sulfur itself does not pose a public health threat, it hampers the effectiveness of catalytic converters, which in turn leads to greater tailpipe emissions. These emissions — nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and fine particles — contribute to smog and soot, which can cause respiratory and heart disease.
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The argument presented by the White House mirrors its announcement last year that the EPA was creating a new standard of 54.5 miles-per-gallon for cars and SUVs by 2025. The administration estimated the move would save consumers $1.7 trillion over the lifetime of the vehicle, and reduce oil consumption by 2 million barrels a day. Buried in that last number is the real benefit: a reduction in greenhouse gas emission and the pollutants that affect public health. As with today's announcement, automobile manufacturers supported the MPG standard — it provided clarity around the production of a new generation of vehicles.
Obama's MPG standard was broadly hailed as his most important environmental move during his first term, largely because he passed on bigger moves. His agenda avoided — and continues to avoid — steps like regulating carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing coal power plants, the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. His biggest efforts to curtail the use of coal power has been on the economic front: encouraging investment in renewable energy technologies and embracing the use of cleaner natural gas in energy production.
Today's announcement prompted the usual position-taking. Conservatives and the oil industry complained about the price increase and the affect on refiners; environmentalists hailed the air pollution reductions and their accompanying health benefits. Fox News' story on the proposal includes a telling line:
Environmentalists hailed the proposal as potentially the most significant in President Obama's second term.
And it potentially could be the most significant — if Obama doesn't do something more drastic to combat climate change. There's a lot of time left in his second term. But, so far, the president appears to prefer a few solid hits to a game-ending grand slam.