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As Energy Initiatives Stall on Hill, Obama Reshapes Regulatory Landscape

February 19, 2010
In The News
By MIKE SORAGHAN of Greenwire
New York Times 

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President Obama has copied the page from his predecessor's playbook on how to push an energy and environment agenda.

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Whether intentionally or not, Obama's tactics have mirrored President George W. Bush's: Try to work with Congress, but also act unilaterally.

Their agendas are near-polar opposites. Bush pushed fossil energy development and rolled back Clinton-era environmental policies. Obama is pushing a battle against climate change and is rolling back many of Bush's pro-development initiatives.

But their circumstances are strikingly similar. Both proposed big energy legislation early in their first terms, only to see it bog down in Congress. And each turned to the vast bureaucracy they control, using the regulatory system, appointments and flat-out issuing orders to accomplish their goals.

"As passing major legislation initially has become more difficult, presidents are increasingly turning to their regulatory authority," said Paul Bledsoe, director of communications and strategy at the National Commission on Energy Policy.

Obama's climate and energy bill is stuck in the Senate, but agencies are poised to insert climate and environmental considerations into nearly every decision, from endangered species to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance and even to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Bush found himself in a similar spot. It took him more than four years to pass a watered-down energy bill, and he never passed the "Clear Skies Act" or opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.

While those debates made headlines, Bush reshaped the regulatory landscape to ease the burden on oil and gas drillers and chipped away at air pollution regulations. By 2007, the Bureau of Land Management was issuing twice as many drilling permits as it did during President Clinton's final year in office.

"They went gangbusters on onshore oil and gas," said Dave Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society. "Where they had the opportunity, they certainly grabbed it."

Bush officials also stripped many environmental protections from a hard-rock mining rule written by the Clinton administration, looked at the possibility of oil and gas exploration in national monuments designated by Clinton, sought to trim environmental reviews and took aim at the New Source Review provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Some Republicans, though, consider Bush "timid" on energy issues compared to team Obama. While Obama's climate bill is stalled in the Senate, his EPA is pushing forward with its "endangerment finding," setting the stage for the agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. And his Interior Department has put the kibosh on drilling projects in Montana, Wyoming and Utah.

"This administration has been very active in ways that hurt the West," said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus. Decisions to cancel gas leases on public land, he said, have cost his state jobs at a time when more jobs are sorely needed,