The 2012 Presidential Election and the Environment: Contrasts,Contradictions and Questions Unanswered

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Written by Joel A. Mintz

Although protection of the environment and natural resources received scant attention in the 2012 presidential contest, the positions taken by the candidates on those significant issues presented some sharp contrasts. They also carry significant implications for us in 2013 and beyond.

Governor Mitt Romney’s views were in sync with the stridently anti-regulatory and anti-environmental stance of the right wing of his party. Romney adopted a head-in-the-sand posture regarding climate change, ignoring clear scientific evidence and denying that climate change has been definitively linked to human activities. His proposed energy policies clearly favored the development of high-polluting energy sources—such as coal and oil—with only occasional, brief references to renewable energy alternatives.

Notwithstanding the fact that they were ultimately endorsed by thirteen major automakers (including Chrysler, Ford and GM), Governor Romney referred to the Obama administrations fuel efficiency standards as “extreme,” and he opposed them vigorously. Romney, with his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, favored drastic cuts in the budget of EPA, an agency which currently constitutes less than one tenth of one percent of the federal budget. If realized, those cuts would have thwarted EPA’s ability to protect drinking water and to limit the discharge of toxic chemicals that threaten the health of Americans. Romney also advocated opening vast tracts of environmentally sensitive lands to mineral extraction, and he endorsed a plan to sell off 3.3 million acres of National Parks and other public lands.

On the other hand, the environmental views and record of President Barack Obama, during his first term in office, presented a decidedly mixed picture. On the pro-environmental side of the ledger, the president openly recognized the serious threats posed by global climate change. His views were in sync with those of the more than 97% of scientists with relevant expertise who accept the soundness of the idea that human emissions of greenhouse gases disrupt the world’s climate. The president endorsed climate change legislation that would curb the emission of those pollutants in the United States, and he urged other nations to take similar steps.

Beyond this, the Obama administration supported the creation of “green jobs” in industries that produce equipment to generate solar and wind energy—an approach that benefits the economy as well as the environment.  The administration also created gas mileage rules that will significantly cutback the emission of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, while saving the average consumer approximately $8,000 in fuel costs over the life of his or her car.

The president’s EPA established new standards to limit toxic mercury emissions, to decrease pollution from industrial boilers and heavy duty trucks, and to eliminate fine particulate matter (soot) from the Nation’s air. It has also been assertive in bringing enforcement actions against major water and air polluters, and in cleaning up hazardous waste dumpsites across the country.

Regarding natural resources, the Obama administration generally took balanced positions that protect the environment while promoting U.S. energy independence. Obama’s Interior Department partnered with local communities, states and other federal agencies to complete more than 100 conservation projects spread over each one of the fifty states. These projects conserved wildlife while generating new jobs in tourism and outdoor recreation. The administration also invested in the restoration of national parks and refuges, fishing streams and wildlife populations, while significantly expanding land and water conservation, and giving priority to protecting such national treasures as the Florida Everglades, the Grand Canyon and Chesapeake Bay.

At the same time, however, from an environmental standpoint the president’s first term record had some regrettable gaps and weaknesses. For example, during his first four years in the White House, President Obama’s EPA left in place the very lax standards imposed during the G.W. Bush administration to regulate the smog-forming pollutant ozone. The Obama administration gave a green—or rather a not-so-green—light to deep sea oil drilling in Alaska’s arctic waters. Moreover, several environmentally sensible regulations proposed by EPA were delayed, or vetoed, by the White House Office of Regulatory Affairs on the basis of neutral-sounding cost-benefit analyses that actually create a “stacked deck” against many new rules that would protect the environment and public health.

Given its unfortunate inconsistencies, it is now difficult to predict the extent to which the Obama administration will vigorously protect the health, environment and natural resources of Americans in the coming four years. The president’s position on a handful of pending decisions may yield some significant clues, however.

Among other things, the president must soon decide whether to approve an environmentally questionable “Keystone XL” pipeline project to transport natural gas from Canada to Texas. He must also determine whom to appoint as EPA’s next Administrator, how much political emphasis to place on limiting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and how strongly the administration will resist renewed Republican proposals to slash the budgets of already shorthanded agencies such as EPA and the Department of Interior.

Whatever the outcome of the president’s decisions on these (and other) environmentally crucial questions, however, after a campaign in which the president’s opponent openly advocated extreme anti-environmental positions in an effort to appeal to the most ideologically obsessed, obstinate, and environmentally ignorant elements of his political base, on balance the outcome of the 2012 presidential elections represents an overall victory for the Nation’s environment.


*Joel A. Mintz is a professor of law at Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Fort Lauderdale.