When it comes to energy, there is an incoherence to President Barack Obama’s policies.
This incoherence is embedded in his administration in the person of Carol Browner. She is largely regarded as the agent of a kind of reactionary environmentalism that once haunted the Democratic Party.
Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton, is a special assistant to Obama for energy and environment. To a wide variety of industries, though, she is the agent of regressive, just-say-no environmentalism.
Browner’s background–from environmental jobs in Florida to working with Al Gore–dooms her to suspicion of zealotry, which is probably unjustified. Her defenders (just about all in the environmental movement), see her as a great public servant and standard-bearer.
But she is largely out of sight these days; her writ and her influence unknown.
To the energy industries, from the ever-embattled nuclear sector to the euphoric-for-now natural gas producers and the mostly happy wind farmers, Browner and her role remains a mystery. Why is she there? How much does she influence Obama? Or, for that matter, does he care more about the politics of energy and the environment than he does about the issues?
The answer, like so much that can be said of Obama, is some of this and some of that.
The administration is opening up the Atlantic coast and part of the Alaskan coast to oil drilling. But it is keeping the California shoreline free of new exploration. (There are a lot of environmental voters in California).
As for nuclear power, the actions of the administration are the most confusing. Obama looks like a host who having welcomed a guest to dine, snatches the guest’s chair away when the meal is brought in.
He has advocated nuclear power and has endorsed loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors. But in a piece of blatant political opportunism Obama has canceled all work, and even licensing, on the Yucca Mountain waste repository site in Nevada. Yet, Yucca Mountain was the cornerstone of the civilian nuclear revival.
To understand why Yucca Mountain has been abandoned, together with $10 billion of taxpayer money, look no further than the senior senator from Nevada, Harry Reid. And to understand Reid’s stubborn rejection of a national patriotic role for Nevada, look no further than the gaming tables and slot machines of Las Vegas. At least part of Obama’s energy policy is influenced by fruit machines.
Obama first declared against Yucca Mountain during the campaign. Many thought that his opposition would, in the way of campaign promises, melt in the sunshine of reality.
But the politics of the Senate triumphed. Obama’s need for Reid, the majority leader in the Senate, became utter dependence in the health-care debate. So the will of previous Congresses for a sophisticated and vital nuclear industry, was trumped by Reid. The Joker came out of the pack face up.
Good thing for energy policy that Nevada has no other big energy issues. Part of its previous attraction for nuclear was its small population and remote location. But the wheel of fortune spins in politics as well as roulette, and unpredictably Reid rose to be the most important Democrat in the Senate.
The offhand way the administration has junked Yucca Mountain should worry all in energy supply. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed the abandonment of Yucca Mountain as being done on “scientific grounds.” If you believe that, the tooth fairy is your sister.
So the administration has pushed nuclear in the full knowledge that California and other states by law cannot approve new plants without a viable repository for their spent fuel. In a stroke, the administration has converted certainty to limbo.
The squeezing of coal is similar. EPA is moving ahead with classifying carbon dioxide as a pollutant, presumably in order to pressure Congress to pass the highly criticized cap-and-trade legislation.
This giving and taking away should give pause to those who think oil and natural gas drilling will proceed apace in the Atlantic and off Alaska. Browner and the president himself must know that a slew of lawsuits will be filed and will tie up action for years, if not decades.
One foot forward, 12 inches backward. That is the Obama energy quick-step.
By. Llewellyn King
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org