The environmental groups that helped propel Barack Obama to the White House are feeling betrayed during a summer of discontent and climate inaction.
The latest blows to the environmental movement came this week when the administration decided to side with major polluters, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a lower court ruling that would have permitted “nuisance” suits against major greenhouse gas emitters. In a separate decision, the administration also approved loan guarantees for a U.S. maker of coal mining equipment to sell to India,
The Justice Department’s friend-of-the-court filing in the case involving giant utility American Electric Power Co. came as a complete surprise to the green lobby, and had many in the movement turning red.
“What the heck is happening at the White House on climate?” Clean Air Watch asked on its website.
“Some believe the Obama White House, having failed to enact climate change legislation, has adopted the old maxim when it comes to polluters: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” the advocacy group wrote in frustration, opining the administration might be gun-shy heading into the fall elections.
“They owe us a better explanation than the one given so far,” Clean Air Watch said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) had equally strong words for the president.
“The administration’s position here is wrong on the law, and wrong on the policy. NRDC is disappointed that, in this instance at least, it chose to side with coal polluters,” said Peter Lehner, director of the well-known environmental advocacy group.
The latest outcry follows a summer in which the administration has repeatedly offended or demoralized the environmental lobby.
Chief among the complaints was that the president personally did not press hard enough for climate change legislation in the U.S. Senate, hardly uttering the words “carbon caps” in the final weeks before senators threw up their arms and walked away from addressing global warming.
Environmentalists watched in dismay when the White House was slow to react to the BP oil accident in April, and when federal officials put out initial estimates that grossly underestimated the size of the leak in the Gulf of Mexico. This month, White House climate czar Carol Browner seemed to minimize the environmental impact of the Gulf spill when she suggested three-quarters of the leaked crude oil may have disappeared.
Some also took umbrage at a last-minute weakening of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed regulations governing the disposal of coal ash and a decision by the U.S. Export-Import Bank to provide aid to a coal plant in India.
Cathy Duvall, of the Sierra Club, said the administration has made some strides on the environment but just not as much as green groups had hoped.
"Yes we're disappointed that we don't have a climate bill, but the blame comes down in a lot of different places. You have to look at the progress made in the last year and a half,” Duvall said.
The simmering discontent among environmental groups may have more impact than just letting off steam.
In a November congressional election where Democrats need every vote to try to retain their majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, environmental groups may feel inspired to sit on the sidelines in protest.
“I think that the president risks alienating people who care about clean air and clean water, which is a very large segment of people, including independents. It was both the wrong thing to do and a political blunder,” said Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, an influential liberal think tank in Washington.