Obama's State of the Union punts on climate change... but what did you expect?

rm iwest mugWell, President Obama certainly did go on at some length tonight in his just-concluded State of the Union address. But he once again failed to elevate the climate issue to urgency. I have to agree with David Roberts over at Grist.org: "Pretty weak tea." (Hat tip to Roberts for posting the transcript of that part of the speech before Obama was even done talking.)

Now, some of our faithful correspondents and even some friends thought it curious that Dateline Earth faulted Obama for falling short on the climate and energy issue in his inaugural address a year ago, after which we held forth thusly:

 That is not the speech of a man who intends to launch a World War II-style domestic campaign -- think Rosie the Riveter and the Manahattan Project. And that's what scientists are saying we'll need.

He did it again tonight. The president -- wisely -- started out talking about jobs or, as we've put it before, "Fighting climate change = ending the recession." He was clearly aware that Americans are saying in polls now that climate is pretty low on their list of concerns. And just a day before the talk, Republican Lindsey Graham caved on Cap'n Trade, provoking Roberts, for one, to accept that we probably won't be going down that road this year, if ever in Obama's presidency.

But the sheer brevity of what Obama had to say tonight portrays a president so pummeled by problems that on climate, he punted.

Interior Dept revokes Bush-era oil and gas leases

In the waning days of the Bush presidency, Utah's Bureau of Land Management went on a tear.

In December, it auctioned off 77 leases -- to 100,000 acres of federal land -- to oil and gas companies intent on drilling Utah.  Some of the leases would have allowed drilling within view of the Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

Now, 60 of those leases have been deemed illegal and revoked by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, in response to a federal restraining order that halted the sale of the drilling rights. 

He based his decision on a report that "found that people in the Bureau of Land Management's Utah office, which oversaw the sales, believed that energy concerns should override environmental or recreational ones," according to the LA Times, which quoted Salazar as saying, "There is no such preference for the use of the land."

Environmentalists hailed Salazar's decision, which was decried by energy groups as antithetical to the Obama Administration's wish for energy independence.

What is fair in health care reform?

Congress is considering bringing parity to taxation of health care benefits.

The plan, touted by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, would tax high-end corporate health care benefits to pay for wide ranging reforms of the U.S. health care system, according to Ken Bensinger of the Los Angeles Times.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) first introduced the plan this summer, arguing that the tax would compel insurers to reduce their costs and allocate their expenses in a more equitable way.

Businesses pay taxes on their lower paid workers' benefits, so officials say the move would correct a regressive tax structure.  Employers would pay the tax, rather than employees.

But labor unions could cozy up to insurers and big business to fight the proposal because they are concerned that the cuts could go deeper, and that insurers would raise premiums or eliminate services to counteract their effect on profits.

New ocean woe: acidification

Alaskan fisheries have a new woe to add to the list: ocean acidification. Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks indicates Arctic oceans are more susceptible to acidification, reports Douglas Fischer of The Daily Climate. As oceans absorb extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, pH levels drop, making them more acidic. Entire food webs are impacted by changing ocean chemistry – organisms like crabs, corals and oysters are unable to pull minerals out of the water to build shells. Pteropods (tiny swimming sea snails) are already having trouble building shells, and since salmon populations depend on these critters to maintain higher body weights, Alaska's salmon runs could be in trouble. The acidification could affect the commercial industry as well as the environment, since more than 60 percent of the seafood in the United States comes from Alaska fisheries.

In a related story by Mary Pemberton of the Associated Press, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke halted the expansion of commercial fishing in the Arctic until a sustainable plan to support fishing and the ecosystem could be developed. Obama administration officials are set to conduct a public hearing in Anchorage today about national ocean policy to develop protections and restoration of coasts, oceans and the Great Lakes.

– Emily Linroth

Obama plays twister with gay marriage stance

With a waving campaign hand, President Barack Obama beckoned to gay voters.  He promised to undo a Clinton-era law blinding the federal government to gay marriage and allowing states to ignore same-sex marriages sanctioned by their peer governments.

But with a presidential gesture, Obama has supported his Justice Department's efforts to throw out a gay couple's lawsuit challenging the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.

His administration's lawyers argue that the Constitution sanctions preventing gay couples from securing the benefits usually accorded to married people, such as Social Security spousal benefits and filing joint taxes.  Doing otherwise wouldn't be fair to taxpayers of the 30 states that specifically prohibit same-sex marriages, they say.

The San Francisco Chronicle published the article by Devlin Barrett of the Associated Press which quotes Obama's statement and the papers his administration filed in a California court.

In them, Obama walks a tightrope between defending the law and offending his gay constituency.

The president said his administration's stance in a California court case is not about defending traditional marriage, but is instead about defending traditional legal practice.

Department lawyers are defending the law "as it traditionally does when acts of Congress are challenged," Obama said in a statement.

"The United States does not believe that DOMA is rationally related to any legitimate government interests in procreation and child-rearing and is therefore not relying upon any such interests to defend DOMA's constitutionality," lawyers argued in the filing.

Saskatchewan favors Obama's emissions plan

Saskatchewan would rather adopt the U.S. carbon emission reduction plan than cap-and-trade systems proposed by Canada because it would be easier on the coal industry in the province, reports Brian Laghi of The Globe and Mail. Saskatchewan is the second largest producer of greenhouse gases in Canada, largely due to burning of coal to generate electricity for mining and refining deep oil reserves. The province worries Canada's strict requirements on capping carbon emissions would cripple its economy. The U.S. plan would reduce carbon emissions on each barrel of oil produced, increasing overall production and allowing continued growth of oil sands production. Whatever plan Canada adopts, Saskatchewan would like to see modifications targeted to specific industries.

– Emily Linroth

“Roadless Rule” reinstated for most national forests

A rule banning mining, logging and new road construction on nearly 40 million acres of national forest land was reinstated by a federal court Wednesday. Among those covering the decision by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals were the Anchorage Daily News and the Los Angeles Times.

The rule was created during the Clinton administration, but later repealed during the Bush administration in favor of state-level decision making. As a result, the Tongass National Forest and national forests in Idaho are the only areas of forest land that are not protected under the reinstated rule. Another case affecting the rule is going on in the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

After the approval of a timber sale in the Tongass last month, it will be interesting to see if the Obama administration enforces the “Roadless Rule” by reinstating it for the Tongass as well.

– Emily Linroth

Military spending has 88-1 budget advantage over fighting climate change

That's right -- for most of this decade, for every dollar we've spent as a nation to fight climate change, we spent $88 on the military.


That factoid about Bush administration budget priorities sticks out the most in a thought-provoking new report by the Institute for Policy Studies entitled "Military vs. Climate Security: Mapping the Shift From the Bush Years to the Obama Era."

President Obama is moving to reduce that discrepancy to 9:1 by next year, although the bulk of the spending on climate change is contained in a one-time stimulus funding package.