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The Top 10 Environmental Plays of Obama's Rookie Season

He's getting killed from all sides, but Obama's first-year environmental record is unprecedented.
Perhaps you've heard-Obama's first year has been a big flop. Guantanamo is still open, public health care ain't happening, Don't Ask-Don't Tell still has soldiers closeted, and he's sat and fiddled while the world burns. Well I'm here to tell you that that last bit, at least, is a crock.

Maybe he hasn't been quite as transformative as many people hoped, and maybe the change hasn't been expansive enough, but on the energy and environment front, we've really never seen anything like Obama's rookie season. "This is by far the best first year on the environment of any president in history, including Teddy Roosevelt," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "Most presidents have done their best environmental work late in their term. This is a very, very strong opening."

Keeping in mind that his time and energy have been necessarily fixed on some serious inherited ills-the worst economy in 70 years, a couple of wars, and an opposition party completely opposed to cooperation-Obama's environmental accomplishments straight out of the gate are actually damn impressive. So what's he done? Here are ten acts, in no particular order, that got me excited.

1. Stimulating Green Change: Sure, it could have been an even greater share, but as part of the stimulus package, the administration devoted more than $80 billion to energy efficiency, renewable energy, public transit, and clean energy jobs. In real world terms, this will double the generation of clean energy (wind, solar, and geothermal power) by 2011 (pdf). It also provides funds to weatherize and retrofit 1 million homes by 2012.

2. California Cars: For the first time in over 20 years, gas mileage standards have been increased for cars and light trucks, as Obama struck a deal with Detroit and the United Auto Workers to accept California's CAFE standards. The 40-percent increase, up to 35 mpg from today's 25 mpg by 2016, will save at least 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program, which is, according to the White House, the equivalent of taking 177 million cars off the road or shutting down 194 coal plants.

3. Clear and Present Danger: Under Obama's watch, the Environmental Protection Agency has, for the first time, identified carbon dioxide and five other potent greenhouse gasses as pollutants that pose a threat to the health and safety of Americans. In December, this endangerment finding, the result of meticulous scientific and legal research, was formally announced and pollution limits will be set for about 7,500 large emitters. (Despite the moans of fossil fuel lobbyists, farms, small businesses, and other relatively small emitters will be excluded.)

4. Don't Drill Wilderness: The Bush administration had been opening up leases along the California coast and for thousands of acres of Utah's wildlands to new oil and gas drilling. Obama's Interior Department has canceled the sales and moved to protect the land and marine wildernesses.

5. Wide Open Spaces: In March, President Obama signed a bill that established 2.1 million acres of new federally protected wilderness, the largest swath since Clinton signed the Desert Protection Act in 1994, banning logging, mining, and road-building in public forests and deserts across nine states, including parts of Joshua Tree and Sequoia National Parks.

6. De-smogging Smokestacks: Just this month, the EPA issued new, stricter smog standards to cut local air pollution from coal- and oil-burning power plants, which the Bush EPA had deemed "not necessary or appropriate."

7. Riding the Rails: I've got a Biden-esque love of trains, so I'm a little biased about this one. But the administration's plans for development of a new high-speed intercity rail network isn't only the biggest transportation infrastructure investment since the Interstate Highway System, it'll also eventually eliminate more than 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions every year, equal to taking 1 million cars off the road.

8. Teaming Up with the Dragon: I wrote about this in more detail back in November, but Obama's historic trip to China produced a "positive, cooperative, and comprehensive" energy plan and could mark the day when the world's two largest greenhouse gas polluters-together responsible for 40-percent of global emissions-got serious about phasing out fossil fuels.

9. Copenhagen Crisis Management: OK, so most of us weren't all that satisfied with the results, and his speech on the final night of COP15 felt more like an American pep rally than a diplomatic gesture to the international community, but Obama did go to Copenhagen as we asked him to, risking more politically back home than most could comprehend. And he did barge into a meeting with China, India, Brazil, and South Africa and, by most accounts, basically rescue the talks from imminent collapse. The Copenhagen Accord wasn't what we wanted, nor did Obama offer nearly enough to satisfy climate activists and the international community. But he was there, was engaged, and did show that the United States will take its responsibility in the global climate arena seriously. And that's something Americans have never before been able to say about a president.

10. Everything Else: But wait, there's more! New rules requiring large ships to cut soot emissions, increased protection for endangered species, funding for smart-grid technologies, advanced biofuels research, strengthening chemical testing, controlling mercury pollution internationally. The list goes on.

It wouldn't have been hard for Obama to hue greener than his predecessor. Goodness, for eight years it felt like every week would bring a new infuriating story of some environmental protection being relaxed to benefit the fossil fuel industry, or of the willful dismissal of science, or of human health and safety being compromised for profit, or of America standing in the way of international climate action. But this constant assault on environmental laws and science and the UN process did give our current president a pretty serious hole to dig out of.

Most Americans would've easily forgiven him for putting aside serious talk of emissions reductions and industry regulations clean energy development until the economy turned. Fortunately, the president seems to understand that the solutions to our environmental problems are the solutions to our economic problems, our national security problems, our health problems. He came charging out of the gate on the environment, getting more done in one year than any other president has in office. But the ecological challenges of our time demand no less. Rather than rest on his laurels, Obama now must pick up the pace and sign a climate and energy bill.

Illustration by Will Etling.

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