President Obama faces several politically volatile decisions that could alienate green activists heading into 2012 or motivate them to battle hard for his reelection.
The White House must consider new smog rules, planned greenhouse gas standards for power plants, oil companies’ push to drill in fragile Arctic seas and many other matters that are being intensely scrutinized by environmentalists.
How Obama handles these issues will go a long way toward determining how he is defined by the environmental movement in 2012, and could affect turnout and campaign activity among young people who voted in outsized numbers for Obama in 2008.
Obama’s fragile standing with the environmental movement that greeted his victory with massive expectations will be on full display this weekend.
Activists on Saturday will launch two weeks of protests at the White House over a proposed pipeline to import Canadian oil sands, which environmentalists call dirty energy.
Organizers expect about 2,000 people to show up, and say sit-ins at the White House – where some activists will risk arrest – will continue through Sept. 3.
The Obama administration is expected to make a decision this year on the Keystone XL pipeline, which oil industry groups are lobbying for hard.
Prominent climate change activist Bill McKibben, one of the protest organizers, casts it as nothing less than a referendum on Obama’s legacy.
“I think it is the most important climate decision he will make between now and the election,” said McKibben, the founder of 350.org and a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College.
The looming decision comes amid discontent among some environmentalists, who have praised Obama on issues like auto efficiency but wanted tougher stances on climate change legislation and policy, oil drilling and coal mining, among other gripes.
Courtney Hight, a 2008 Obama campaign staffer who is now co-executive director of the Energy Action Coalition, called the pipeline decision a chance for Obama to “make a clean break with the dirty energy industry.”
“He still has the opportunity to regain some footing with young people,” said Hight, the Obama campaign’s Florida youth vote director in 2008. “By all means, everybody is hungry for leadership.”
According to the Pew Research Center, Obama scored a whopping 66 percent of the vote among voters under 30 in 2008. Next year, he needs young voters to turn out in large numbers again in what is expected to be a tighter election.
Polls show other issues – notably the economy – are a bigger priority than the environment, but the president still can’t afford widespread political disenchantment in the green movement that could suppress turnout.
“The risk he has in turnout is environmental issues tend to play the strongest among voters under 30,” said political analyst Ron Faucheux, who is president of the Clarus Research Group and teaches at George Washington University.
While environmentalists won’t throw their weight behind a GOP White House hopeful, Obama’s choices could affect the work of green groups with political field organizations, notably the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters (LCV).
Navin Nayak, LCV’s senior vice president for campaigns, pointed to Obama’s decision to significantly boost auto mileage requirements, and create first-time efficiency standards for heavy trucks, in arguing that Obama’s standing with environmentalists remains generally good.
But Nayak also took a shot across Obama’s bow: he notes that the White House can’t “coast” given the “magnitude of decisions they have in front of them.”
“We are certainly going to be watching closely how these decisions play out in terms of our resources and investment in the presidential race,” said Nayak, whose group is also active in congressional races. “It is all a matter of prioritizing resources.”
The White House has defended its environmental record, pointing to tens of billions in green energy programs in the stimulus and fuel efficiency rules that have won green movement praise.
Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is also moving to regulate greenhouse gases, reversing Bush-era opposition, among other steps.
“This administration has taken more steps to get us to energy independence with an increase in fuel economy standards and an historic investment in programs that are helping America transition to a clean energy economy,” said Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman for Obama’s reelection campaign.
“If you look at [Obama’s] overall record, he has done more to reduce global warming pollution than any previous president,” said Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Weiss ticks off several policies, including the vehicle rules, the stimulus, the White House executive order on federal agency energy and greenhouse gas reduction, military alternative fuel programs and other steps.
Obama’s green base could also be motivated by continued efforts by Capitol Hill Republicans – and some Democrats – to scuttle EPA rules on climate change and other air pollution standards.
The GOP presidential field is attacking what they call EPA overreach, calling for wider drilling and, in some cases, expressing skepticism about climate science.
Tony Cani, the Sierra Group’s national political director, said he expects green issues to motivate voters in 2012 given attacks on the EPA and clean energy. The group’s political committee will discuss its 2012 plans over the weekend.
Still, as the oil sands protests near, Glenn Hurowitz, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy who has been critical of Obama, said activists are in a very different place with the president then they were three years ago.
“I don’t think that in 2008 many environmentalists and Obama supporters thought they would feel compelled to protest outside the White House in 2011 because the administration was seriously considering letting the oil industry import massive quantities of ultra-polluting tar sands oil,” he said.