Obama and the environment

Media react to the election with speculation, some insights

Journalists didn’t leave energy and the environment out of post-election speculation about what President Obama’s second term might look like.

A lot of the commentary was a recitation of the ups and downs of Obama’s record during the first four years—from tightening vehicle fuel-efficiency standards to dropping a plan to reduce smog—and prognosticating about what the next four years could mean for climate change, in particular. After saying next to nothing about the problem during the campaign, Obama finally gave reporters a peg in his acceptance speech:

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.

The Huffington Post (twice), The Washington Post (twice), CNN, Reuters (twice), the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian (twice), E&E Daily, Inside Climate News, Scientific American, and New Scientist all have articles wondering exactly what that statement implies for projects and proposals such as the Keystone XL pipeline, a carbon tax, renewable energy subsidies, and regulations on oil and gas drilling. The articles are all informative. They provide some background and a snapshot of what’s on the horizon, including quotes from a variety of environmentalists and industry representatives—and they’ll help any beat reporters who are thinking about where they can dig in coming months. But fresh insights were hard to come by.

A few stories broke away from the pack with different or more focused angles, however. Politico’s Andrew Restuccia had an intriguing article about the possibility that the president may “shuffle” his energy team, in which he reported that:

Democrats close to the Obama administration say Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar could all step down during Obama’s second term, though the timing is far from certain.

Of course, Democrats caution that nothing is set in stone and the politics of the second term, as well as the possibility of a lengthy confirmation battle over their replacements, could dictate who stays and who goes. But even ahead of Tuesday’s election, names of potential key replacements from the ranks of both business and government were circulating in Washington.

According to Restuccia, Duke CEO Jim Rogers and John Podesta, chairman of the Center for American Progress and former Clinton White House chief of staff, are among those who might replace Chu; the Environmental Protection Agency’s top air official, Gina McCarthy, and California Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols, are among those who might replace Jackson; and Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and Montana Senator Jon Tester are among those who might replace Salazar.

Another notable story was a blog post by Ken Ward Jr., a reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, about the failure of the “war on coal” campaign, which tried to saddle Obama with sole responsibility for the industry’s woes. The campaign is “credited” with defeating Kentucky congressman Ben Chandler, a Democrat, and “played a role in large gains for Republicans” in the West Virginia Legislature, but other targets of the aggressive campaign “won six crucial U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Montana, New Mexico and Indiana.” Ward’s first call on the morning after the election was to Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, who told him that, in light of those results, he suspects “there’s going to be a lot of adjustment” to the industry’s strategy.

Also in the breakaway category, Audubon Magazine published an exclusive interview with Obama, who submitted written answers to 10 questions, apparently sometime before the election, so his replies read like a candidate defending his record rather than a newly re-elected president proposing a vision for a second term. Obama’s remarks about climate change and energy are mostly the same boilerplate he gave to ScienceDebate.org back in September, but there are some fresh comments about his “environmental legacy,” including a defense of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic and a promise to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Last, but not least, looking beyond the White House, The Hill’s Ben Geman had an update on the race between three Republicans, who are all climate-change skeptics, to be the next chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Wisconsin’s James Sensenbrenner, Texas’s Lamar Smith, and California’s Dana Rohrbacher are all vying for the position. Geman included statements from Sensenbrenner and Smith, both of whom mentioned a desire to evaluate NASA and US space policy—a subject that hardly came up during the presidential campaign.

For the moment, there are more questions than answers about what lies ahead for energy, the environment, and other scientifically relevant issues. The post-election coverage has made it clear precisely what these questions are, however, and reporters should have a good sense of where they’ll need to follow up during the next four years.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , ,