President-elect Barack Obama is hitting the ground running and not wasting any time in preparing to govern the country through what is certain to be one of the most challenging and critical periods in our history. Environmental and energy policy issues are near the top of his to-do list, especially through using clean energy and infrastructure investment to fuel economic recovery. There is an overwhelming amount of advice (and would-be advisors) vying for President-elect Obama’s attention, and he is assembling a solid inner circle of knowledgeable people to explore the competing ideas and prioritize the administration’s initial efforts.
So far, what is most impressive about the transitional environmental policy work is that the President-elect and his advisors seem to be seeing both the forest and the trees. They are recognizing the big mega problem facing the nation and the planet involving climate change, energy, and infrastructure. At the same time, they are taking a detailed look at the lower profile environmental policy issues that can and must be fixed after 8 years of President Bush and the gutting of environmental laws by political appointees in the federal agencies.
The best advice for addressing the mega problem of climate-energy-infrastructure was recently offered by former Vice President Al Gore in a New York Times Op-Ed, “The Climate for Change.” Gore provides a five-part plan to repower America with a commitment to producing 100% of our electricity from carbon-free sources within 10 years. His plan would help solve both the climate crisis and the economic crisis, while creating millions of new jobs throughout the United States. Here’s the five-part plan in a nutshell: (1) invest in renewable energy sources in every region (solar, wind, geothermal); (2) build a unified national smart grid to move renewable electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed; (3) help the auto industry convert quickly to plug-in hybrids that can run on the renewable electricity and national smart grid; (4) retrofit buildings with energy-efficient design and materials; and (5) lead an international effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
For the lower profile environmental policy issues, the transition team should continue to listen to experts in every field, from air and water pollution to public land management and endangered species, and identify actions that can be taking right away without new legislation or significant new funding. For water protection and the Great Lakes, the priorities include directing the EPA to regulate ballast water discharges and stop the spread of invasive species immediately (fulfilling Obama’s campaign promise), repealing the EPA’s recent rule exempting water transfers from Clean Water Act regulation, and dropping the U.S. Army Corps’ ridiculous recent interpretation of the Clean Water Act that allows tons of mining waste to be dumped into lakes and rivers as “fill.” These administrative and regulatory actions won’t take away from the big effort to address the climate-energy-infrastructure mega problem, and there is no reason to put them on the back burner while we follow Gore’s five-part plan. So far, the Obama transition team seems capable of focusing on the big problems while addressing the small ones – seeing both the forest and the trees – an underappreciated skill of great Presidential administrations.