Obama Administration

Obama administration to second-guess controversial Bush-era smog rule

There are a lot of folks following this more closely than I am, but make no mistake about it: The Obama administration's decision today to revisit the Bush administration's ruling on how much smog we'll tolerate in the air is a big honkin' deal.

Note that two of the best early versions of the story come from Texas, where they know from air pollution: Randy Lee Loftis's blog post for The Dallas Morning News (reader comment: "This should be front page news." We'll see...) and Matthew Tresaugue's piece in The Houston Chronicle.


-- Robert McClure

Obama administration approves pipeline for Alberta tar sands, skirts climate issue

I'm not finding a lot of coverage of a really important decision made by the Obama administration yesterday to allow construction of a pipeline to help move synthetic crude oil from the Alberta tar sands into the United States.

[caption id="attachment_2997" align="alignright" width="226" caption="Suncor Millenium Mine north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo by David Dodge, The Pembina Institute"]Suncor Millenium Mine north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo by David Dodge, The Pembina Institute[/caption]

Perhaps it's just that the decision by the U.S. State Department was expected. Or maybe it's that a deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually made the decision Aug. 3 but waited until  these doggiest of the dog days to let the world know.

In any case, Steven Mufson of The Washington Post has the best story I've been able to find this side of the border, while Sheila McNulty's daily was a worthwhile follow to her earlier in-depth reporting on the tar sands for the Financial Times (registration required). And for more background, don't miss National Geographic's treatment.

Folks, this is one to watch carefully. We're talking about the largest proven petroleum reserve outside Saudi Arabia.

Ag Secretary in Seattle: We must make restoration # 1 priority in forests

[caption id="attachment_2670" align="alignleft" width="70" caption="Tom Vilsack"]Tom Vilsack[/caption]

For those who may have doubted that there would be much difference between a Bush administration and an Obama administration -- and we must say there's been less difference than advertised in some areas -- take a look at the speech Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is giving today in Seattle:

It is time for a change in the way we view and manage America's forest lands with an eye toward the future. This will require an unprecedented, all-lands approach that engages the American people and stakeholders. It is essential that we reconnect Americans across the nation with the natural resources and landscapes that sustain us.

Yeah, it's rhetoric, all right, but it's certainly not much like the rhetoric we heard from the former Ag secretaries Ann Veneman ("Ann Venemous" to some enviros) and Mike Johanns,  or from Mark Rey, the former timber lobbyist who headed the U.S. Forest Service under Bush.

Vilsack is unabashedly and directly committing the Forest Service to consider restoring the health of forests as its highest priority. That might seem like a no-brainer. But recall that this is an agency that's been pummeled by budget cuts after old-growth logging quit bringing in the kind of revenue it did in decades past. And marching orders had been kinda squirrelly, some in the agency say, with Rey at the helm.

What Vilsack's calling for, specifically, is by no means revolutionary. He's talking about creating "green jobs" funded by stimulus money and perhaps other funding sources to hire people to thin overstocked forests that cover most of the West.

Those forests grew in too thick and became unhealthy because of a century of fire suppression.

Obama electric-car research total stunning compared to past R&D efforts

president-you-know-whoTake a look at most of today's news stories about President Obama announcing that the government is awarding $2.4 billion to spur the manufacturing of electric-hybrid cars.

The headline on a New York Times piece is a good example: "Obama visits economically depressed region."

Well, do tell! That hed could've been on dozens of stories in the last year. The accounts of Obama's visit to Elkhart County, Indiana (unemployment rate: 16.8 percent) that we've found so far today are heavy on how this is supposed to be great for the economy. These accounts fall short on how this stacks up as an energy investment compared to past performance.

With the $2.4 billion in federal funds matched by the companies receiving it, we're looking at, according to the White House, "the single largest investment in advanced battery technology for hybrid and electric-drive vehicles ever made." This is huge.

To put this $2.4 billion government investment into context, consider that the Clinton and Bush administrations spent something like $1.5 billion over eight years on an ill-fated program called the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle. Taxpayers and the Big Three automakers -- which kicked in $8 billion -- funded a research program.

They did find ways to make more fuel-efficient vehicles -- but at a cost of roughly $7,000 to $10,000 per car. Because of the high pricetag, the automakers never put their newfound knowledge into effect.

What did they get for their $1 billion a year?

Will Obama administration stop Arctic fishing?

Today's the comment deadline for an Obama administration proposal to close virtually the entire U.S. portion of the Arctic Ocean to commercial fishing. We were reminded of this by Marilyn Heiman of Oceans North, a new Pew-funded effort to protect, well, northern oceans.  Heiman writes:

If approved, the plan will be the first major move by a government to protect an entire marine ecosystem before commercial fishing takes place.

As Datetline Earth has discussed before, global warming is going gangbusters in the Arctic.  It looks like we could see an ice-free summer there in the next decade.

[caption id="attachment_1794" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Ringed seal in Arctic courtesy Josh London, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration"]Ringed seal in Arctic courtesy Josh London, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration[/caption]

The Arctic Fishery Management Plan that Commerce Secretary Gary Locke (still feels weird to type that instead of  "Washington Gov.") is considering has the support of both Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her Democratic compatriot from Alaska, Mark Begich.

Will EPA head see through her promise of more transparency?

[caption id="attachment_1442" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="EPA head Lisa Jackson"]EPA head Lisa Jackson[/caption]

If you've been watching the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as long as I have, you have to be hopeful when you hear Administrator Lisa Jackson saying she's going to increase transparency at the agency. And it's good news that she seems to be hinting that the agency will be taking on a stronger role in regulating stormwater, our most widespread form of water pollution.

Jackson's initiative, detailed in a piece by the pro-transparency group OMBWatch, is based on a July 2 memo from Jackson to agency employees regarding how they handle their duties under the Clean Water Act. OMBWatch notes:

The new memo from Jackson only addresses enforcement of and compliance with one statute, the Clean Water Act. No such memo or other instructions have been released regarding transparency in the enforcement of the numerous other environmental statutes under EPA's jurisdiction.  ...

 The memo continues an emerging trend at EPA of greater transparency – at least rhetorically. Shortly after her confirmation as head of EPA, Jackson released a memo to all employees calling for greater transparency, followed by a memo emphasizing a restoration of scientific integrity.

Will this lead to actual transparency? That's one we'll have to watch and see about. For instance, will Jackson order that responses to all Freedom of Information Act requests, once fullfilled, be posted online for all to see?

WOPR of a loss for timber industry

The Obama administration is tossing out a Bush administration plan governing logging across 2.6 million acres in Oregon, saying it was not legally sustainable or supported by science. The Western Oregon Plan Revision was adopted in the waning days of the Bush administration, and stemmed from lawsuits filed by the timber industry. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar repeatedly cited influence on the plan by Bush's now-disgraced deputy Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald, according to the AP story by Jeff Barnard.  Did this story break late? Neither the AP version nor the Oregonian's story has comment from the timber industry, which was a big supporter of the plan.

Update 10:53 a.m.: Kim Murphy of the LA Times has timber comment.

Update 11:57 a.m.: Whoops. Mattew Preusch, author of the Oregonian piece, points out that that story we picked up from the Oregonian's home page earlier today was an early version. The more-complete story is here.

Prostate cancer: health care's litmus test

The U.S. health care system is bloated, inefficient and does not reward the best care -- only the most treatment.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times uses confusing, expensive and ambiguous prostate cancer treatments to show how much health care reform is needed from the Obama Administration.