By Aamer Madhani
As his re-election campaign heats up, President Obama finds himself in an awkward position trying to defend his environmental policies against Republicans and disillusioned environmentalists who backed his campaign in 2008.
Protesters carry a mock pipeline in Lincoln, Neb., last month before a hearing on the project. The State Department in August ruled the plan would cause no serious damage.
He's under withering attack from GOP presidential contenders and lawmakers who say the Obama administration is handcuffing job growth with stifling regulations. Meanwhile, some environmental activists have expressed frustration that the White House has blocked or delayed several clean air and water regulations in recent weeks.
Some environmentalists -- who were inspired by his calls in 2008 to reduce oil dependence and increase green energy investment -- are disappointed that the State Department ruled in August that a plan to build a controversial Keystone XL pipeline -- which would transport tar-sands oil from Canada to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and the Gulf of Mexico-- would not cause significant environmental damage.
Obama will be greeted by hundreds of protesters calling on him to scrap the Keystone XL project when he travels to San Francisco on Tuesday, said Elijah Zarlin, a campaign organizer for the liberal group CREDO Action. On Sunday, more than 400 young activists organized by the Energy Action Coalition protested in front of the Obama campaign office in Cleveland. And a coalition of activists are planning a major demonstration in front of the White House on Nov. 6 to protest the pipeline. Hundreds were arrested at an August sit-in at the White House against the project.
"What's disappointing is that this is a guy who seemed like he had the ability to explain complicated issues to people," said Zarlin, who worked on the new-media staff of Obama's 2008 campaign and was arrested at the recent White House sit-in. "The key is that people who supported Obama in 2008 still want to believe that he can lead and he will lead and will do the right thing."
The criticism from the right is perhaps rougher. At last week's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry argued vociferously about their bona fides on health care and immigration policy, but they were in lock step as they criticized the Obama administration for handcuffing the oil industry with regulations.
"We've got 300 years of resources right under our feet in this country," Perry said. "Yet we've got an administration that is blockading our ability to bring that to the surface, whether it's our petroleum, our natural gas or our coal." Moments later, Romney added: "He's absolutely right about getting energy independence and taking advantage of our natural resources here. We're an energy-rich nation that's acting like an energy-poor nation."
The intensified attacks on Obama's environmental record come on the heels of the administration's decision to block or delay implementation of a series of Environmental Protection Agency initiatives.
Last week, the EPA notified Congress that it won't regulate the dust produced by farm operations in the Midwest. Earlier this month, the EPA eased an air quality rule that would require power plants in 27 states to slash emissions. Last month, the White House decided to take a pass on implementing new smog regulations.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and two other groups who backed tougher regulations commissioned a poll by Public Policy Polling that showed 70% of Americans disapproved of Obama's stance on smog. The decision was particularly unpopular with women in the swing states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the NRDC Action Fund.
"The biggest cost that Obama has got here is that he could be facing an enthusiasm problem," Taylor-Miesle said.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers need to continue to press the issue with voters and make the case that Obama administration regulations have held back economic growth.
Ben LaBolt, the Obama campaign press secretary, countered that Republicans are offering "old energy ideas" that fail to enhance U.S. energy security or global competitiveness. He defended Obama's environmental record. "The president has done more to wean us off of foreign oil and transition the nation to a clean energy economy than any other," LaBolt said.
Both Republicans and environmentalists are waiting to see how the president comes down on the Keystone project and say it will be a seminal moment for the president.
Scalise said it's bewildering that Obama hasn't already backed the project that would bring billions of dollars in private investment and create thousands of jobs.
"He could create those jobs tomorrow if he sent out an executive order and said we're going to make this happen," Scalise said.
Republican lawmakers in Washington along with some Democrats -- 22 House Democrats wrote to Obama last week endorsing the project -- have pushed Obama to quickly approve the deal. But some Republicans from Nebraska, one of six states the pipeline would cut through, have expressed reservations. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, Sen. Mike Johanns and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry want the pipeline to be moved, saying a leak could contaminate the Ogallala aquifer. Heineman called Monday for the state Legislature to hold a special session on Nov. 1 to see whether it can craft legislation to force moving the pipeline.