President Elect Obama’s Environmental Policy: Will It Be a Sustainable Change?

Bonni Kaufman
April 1, 2009 — 1,278 views  

Barack Obama’s election as the next president of the United States should bring substantial changes to the last eight years of environmental policy and regulation. President-elect Obama ran a successful campaign, with clearly expressed views on climate change, land use, clean air, renewable resources and clean energy technology. In his campaign, Obama established an environmental agenda to “ensure that our nation’s environmental laws and policies balance America’s need for a healthy, sustainable environment with economic growth.” And, it now appears Obama will make good on this promise. With the new Obama Administration comes a new opportunity to revise and influence our country’s environmental laws and policies. This article describes Obama’s publicly available position on environmental issues and overviews the probable regulatory and legislative policies for the next four years.

A “Change” in Climate Change Regulation

Obama’s campaign made clear that his top priority is combating global warming. His agenda sets forth a detailed and comprehensive plan to influence climate change policy. With respect to reducing emissions, Obama supports “implementation of a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.”1 This system will require all pollution credits to be auctioned, on the theory that “a 100 percent auction ensures that all polluters pay for every ton of emissions they release, rather than giving these emission rights away to coal and oil companies.” Under the cap-and-trade program, the power of the market will force reductions to be made in the most effective and flexible manner. Part of the revenue generated by the auctioned allowances will go to research, development and deployment of clean energy technologies, an initiative to help people in the U.S. reduce their energy costs.

Obama sees climate change not only as a great challenge, but also as a great opportunity to create jobs and innovation in the current economy. He proposes to spend over $150 billion over 10 years on advanced energy technologies. These funds will go to investments in basic research and human capital – creating job training programs for workers to adapt to clean technology development and production. Obama also wants to set standards to allow the market to invest and innovate. The Obama plan will establish a National Low Carbon Fuel Standard to speed up introduction of low carbon, non-petroleum fuels. Obama will also establish a 25 percent federal Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) so that 25 percent of electricity consumed will be generated from clean, sustainable energy sources to be achieved by 2025. And finally, Obama will ensure that at least 30 percent of the federal government’s electricity comes from renewable resources by 2020.

According to his public statements, Obama believes the quickest way to reduce emissions is through energy efficiency, particularly efficiency in buildings. Through several innovative initiatives, Obama wants to make all buildings carbon neutral or produce zero emissions by 2030. He proposes to set national goals to increase building energy efficiency and provide incentives for states and localities to implement new building codes that prioritize efficiency. Since many municipalities are already implementing a reward system, such as expedited building approval and the credits for green buildings, we can expect to see these programs implemented across the country with Obama’s support. He will also pursue investing in our national utility grid “to enable a tremendous increase in renewable generation and accommodate 21st century energy requirements, such as reliability, smart metering and distributing storage.”

The Obama administration also wants the U.S. to be a leader in fighting the effects of climate change around the world. Obama has proposed to re-engage with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In addition, he wants to create a global energy forum, bringing the 13 largest energy consuming nations from both the developed and developing world together, to discuss global energy and environmental issues.

Clean Water and Air

During his presidency, Obama intends to improve the quality of our nation’s lakes, rivers and drinking water. Obama wants to reinvigorate the federal Environmental Protection Agency so that it will strictly monitor and regulate pollution. He is an advocate for preserving wetlands and supports a broad range of traditional conservation programs, including the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Wetland Reserve Program in the Farm Bill.”2 Obama also supports tougher regulations for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), including limits on nitrogen, phosphorous, ammonia and other pollutants. Because Obama has lived near the Great Lakes most of his life, he has stated that he has a great affection for their beauty and is aware of their importance to the region’s economy. He said that he will work tirelessly to keep the Great Lakes in pristine condition and help protect against discharges of mercury, sludge and invasive species. Obama also sees the water drought’s impacts on the West and supports federal policies to encourage voluntary water banks, wastewater treatment and other market conservation methods.3

As a senator, Obama was an outspoken proponent of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, which requires cleaner diesel fuels and lower emissions. He also had a strong interest in reducing mercury emissions.

Community Environmental Concerns

Based on his experience as a community organizer, Obama is a fervent supporter of protecting children from health hazards caused by environmental toxins, such as lead, mercury and industrial land waste.4 Obama will “fight to clean brownfields, restore abandoned industrial riverfront sites, and give communities the tools they need to eat healthy foods and expand livable, walkable neighborhoods.”5 Obama not only wants to raise the environmental standards that have gone unenforced in lower income communities, he also wants to raise the quality of living. A reoccurring theme throughout Obama’s environmental agenda is the strengthening of the EPA. Obama wants the EPA to publish rules for how contractors deal with lead paint hazards
during renovation and remodeling and he wants the EPA to disclose what the agency is doing to control human exposure to hazardous contaminants. Environmental justice policies are another area that Obama plans to make a priority in the EPA and he wants to ensure that “low-income communities are represented in the EPA’s long-term planning.” Overall, the Obama Administration intends to heavily focus its efforts on environmental issues affecting the underprivileged.

Land Use

A significant obstacle in Obama’s environmental policy transition is his desire to reverse the Bush Administration policies that he disagrees with. According to press reports, the Bush Administration is attempting to implement changes to the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act’s power-plant provisions prior to January 20, 2009.6 Additionally, there are several existing rules which several members of Congress hope the new administration will address, including rules governing oil drilling on public lands.7 There is also a strong indication that Obama will reverse the Bush Administration’s rejection of California’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles.8

Current Transition Issues

Currently, the Obama Administration is deploying an “advance team” in preparation for the transition to a new EPA. The team will be seeking information related to EPA’s organizational structure, staffing, programs and policy issues so that the transition can be “immediately effective.” The team is composed of several former top agency officials, state environmental officials and members of major environmental organizations. They include: New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Lisa Jackson; Robert Sussman, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former deputy administrator of the EPA; former Congressional Affairs Acting Associate Administrator Julie Anderson; former EPA General Counsel Jonathan Cannon; former EPA Water Chief Charles Fox; Lisa Heinzerling, a Georgetown University law professor who wrote the plaintiffs’ arguments in the landmark Massachusetts v. EPA Supreme Court case; John Darin, Director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter; and Progressive Policy Institute senior scholar Jan Mazurek.9

In addition, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) the new chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, has indicated that he will push hard for the changes that Obama promised to bring.10 Waxman will likely push for sweeping global warming and other environmental legislation.

For more information, contact:

Bonni F. Kaufman
[email protected]

toll free: 1.888.688.8500

The author would like to thank Jason L. Kaplan for his assistance with this article. Jason is a law student at the Vermont Law School who is participating in a Semester in Practice with Holland & Knight in our Washington, D.C. office.

1 Unless otherwise indicated, all of Obama’s quoted remarks are from the Environmental Factsheet.






7 Id.



10 Pete Brush,

Bonni Kaufman

Holland & Knight