George W. Bush spent 8 years in the White House undermining environmental protection, eventually leaving office with the worst environmental record of any modern president. His regulatory rollbacks and refusal to enforce environmental laws were most immediately apparent, but history will judge him even more harshly for his total lack of leadership in meeting the national and global clean energy / climate change challenge. President Obama could have come into office and done nothing more than put in a few LED lights around the White House and been a huge improvement. But simply being better than Bush II would not be enough – our environmental problems demand immediate and strong presidential leadership. Overall, this is exactly what Obama has delivered in his first 100 days. Here are my three highlights:
1. A commitment to open and accountable government. As Obama said soon after taking office, “a democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.” Open government is the foundation for good environmental policy, and Obama and the new EPA leadership made a strong commitment to the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and public participation in their first week after taking office.
2. Highly qualified appointees with scientific and legal integrity to lead the federal government. Some of Obama’s high profile appointees are already well known for their scientific and legal credentials, such as Dr. Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winner appointed as Secretary of Energy. But in every key agency, Obama has made excellent appointments with superbly qualified individuals. Two deserve special mention. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, one of the most highly cited marine ecologists, an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius” award), was appointed Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, responsible for a range of scientific and regulatory functions from climate monitoring to fisheries management. Professor Lisa Heinzerling, lead author of the brief in Massachusetts v. EPA that persuaded the Supreme Court that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions pursuant to the Clean Air Act (and co-author of our casebook Environmental Law and Policy: Nature, Law, and Society) was appointed as a special advisor to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on climate change issues.
3. Presidential leadership and comprehensive solutions to meet the clean energy / climate change challenge. President Obama appears to be well ahead of most of Washington DC in moving forward a clean energy / climate change agenda. Most recently, his EPA issued a proposed endangerment finding for greenhouse gas pollution that would trigger a new regulatory process for carbon dioxide emissions and other climate change pollutants. In addition to new regulation, Obama has also shown in his first 100 days a total commitment to transforming the American energy, transportation, and building sectors, investing in smart-grid technologies, high speed rail, and home weatherization programs.
President Obama and his administration have been understandably focused on these major issues in their first 100 days, but let’s not forget some items still on Team Obama’s to-do list for the Great Lakes:
1. Direct the EPA to regulate ballast water discharges and stop the spread of invasive species immediately (fulfilling a key Great Lakes campaign promise).
2. Repeal the EPA’s recent rule exempting water transfers and interbasin diversions from Clean Water Act regulation (if the rule isn’t stuck down in federal court first).
3. Drop the U.S. Army Corps’ ridiculous interpretation of the Clean Water Act that allows tons of mining waste to be dumped into lakes and rivers as “fill” (even if the Supreme Court would allow such an interpretation).
I expect President Obama will take care of these lower profile issues in due time, while keeping his focus on the big picture issues of clean energy and climate change. Based on what he has already accomplished in the first 100 days, the next 1,000 days should produce the type of transformative changes in environmental law and policy that his campaign promised.