Ecocentric

President Obama: Person of the Year—and Driller in Chief

President Obama promised to deal with climate change in the White House—and he's helped pump billions into renewable energy and improved energy efficiency. But his biggest legacy may be the historic boom in domestic oil and gas production

  • Share
  • Read Later
MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama walks past an oil rig to a stage to speaks at an oil and gas production field on federal lands near Maljamar, N.M., March 21, 2012.

As you’ve probably heard by now, we’ve named President Barack Obama as 2012′s TIME Person of the Year. (Sorry, Kim Jong Un—it was a tough choice.) You should definitely check out Michael Scherer’s profile of Obama as he begins his historic second term, TIME Executive Editor Rick Stengel’s musings on just what makes Obama so historic, the full interview with the President and a collection of 125 behind the scene photos at the White House, which includes this one.

The environment was one area where the President was less than historic, despite campaign promises in 2008 to treat climate change as a major priority. It’s not that he was bereft of accomplishment—as my colleague Michael Grunwald argued in his excellent book The New New Deal, the 2009 stimulus bill provided billions and billions of dollars in funding for cutting-edge renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean tech firms that will be paying off the country and the climate for years ahead. And Republican lockstep opposition to virtually any environmental act would have hamstrung any President, whatever their green intentions. But a national carbon cap and trade plan failed at least in part because of lack of White House enthusiasm, which had already expended political health care on capital; the White House backtracked on tougher smog regulations over EPA recommendations; and  the Administration has been less than aggressive on regulating greenhouse gas emissions.


(MORE: Why Climate Change Has Become the Missing Issue in the Presidential Campaign)

So it should hearten greens that Obama volunteered in his interview with TIME editors that climate would be a major part of his second-term agenda—at least in part because of concern for his children:

Well, it’s a cliché, but it’s obviously true that for any parent, as you watch your kids age, you are reminded that everything you do has to have their futures in mind. You fervently hope they’re going to outlive you; that the world will be better for them when you’re not around. You start thinking about their kids.

And so, on an issue like climate change, for example, I think for this country and the world to ask some very tough questions about what are we leaving behind, that weighs on you. And not to mention the fact I think that generation is much more environmentally aware than previous generations.

There is that sense of we’ve got to get this right, and at least give them a fighting chance. In the same  way that as a parent you recognize that no matter what you do, your kids are going to have challenges — because that’s the human condition — but you don’t want them dealing with stuff that’s the result of you making bad choices. They’ll have enough bad choices that they make on their own that you don’t want them inheriting the consequences of bad choices that you make. We have to think about that as a society as a whole.

That’s a pretty good argument for why we need to act on global warming—though it’s not really clear what the President would or even could do, especially faced with a divided and likely hostile Congress. He’s the Person of the Year, but he’s not omnipotent. (Though he does have options—see this plan from the Natural Resources Defense Council that would use the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.)

(MORE: Two Years After the Gulf Oil Spill, Why We Won’t Stop Drilling)

Still, it’s notable that at the end of the interview, Obama returned to one of the most unexpected events of his Administration: the boom in domestic oil and natural gas production, which he has been all too ready to take some credit for:

The other big piece of this is that the transformation and energy could have a huge geopolitical consequence. The United States is going to be a net exporter of energy because of new technologies and what we’re doing with natural gas and oil. We’ve, during my first four years, reduced our dependence on foreign oil each and every year; we’re now down to under 50 percent. We can maintain those trendlines. And that, I think, gives us more freedom of movement to speak to the kind of Middle East that we want to see and the world we want to see.

I think the President, like a lot of people, is overstating the geopolitical consequences of greater U.S. energy independence. Yes, it’s good for the economy and the country to import less foreign oil, especially from Russia or the Middle East. But the price of oil is still set on the global market, which means that as the long as the U.S. and the world remains largely dependent on oil as a transportation fuel, we won’t be able to declare independence from the Middle East any time soon.

But there’s no debating just how seismic a change this is for the U.S. This year U.S. oil production grew by 766,000 barrels a day—the biggest one-year increase since the first American well was drilled in 1859. Domestic oil production is at the highest level in 15 years, and foreign oil imports—thanks as well to increases in U.S. fuel efficiency, which you can help credit to Obama—have fallen to 41% of demand, down from 60% seven years ago.

Much of this new oil and gas production comes thanks to hydraulic fracturing, which comes with its own set of very real environmental problems—problems the Obama Administration has not always adequately addressed. Nor, despite the BP oil spill of 2010, has the White House done much to restrict expanded oil and gas production, even opening parts of the Arctic waters to drillers. (Obama did pause the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline from Canada, but it’s entirely possible that he may yet decide to let it go forward.) And that’s the irony. The 2012 Person of the Year, who promised that his election would mark the moment when the “rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” may be best remembered on energy policy what Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations called the “Driller in Chief,” the man who, however inadvertently, oversaw the reemergence of the U.S. as a major oil and gas producer.

MORE: SXSW Eco: Searching for a New Environmentalism

12 comments
rhondakelly07
rhondakelly07

go.to.ANTICHRIST)..Jesus.said.odamas.whole.name.in.HEDREW..go.to.page.see.small.tv..(RIOT.2013USA)..MARTIAL.LAW)..(FEMA.DEATH.CAMPS)..WORLD.WAR3)..SECEADING.STATES)..(IMPEACH.THE.PRESEDENT)..(DEATH.TO.WHITE.PEOPLE)..(plastic.coffenes.femma.camps)..(CHINEESE.TROOPS.IN.MEZICO)....hes.a.lier.con..antichrist..he.lied.to.Americia..Eligals.can.leagally.work.here.stealing.work.VOTES.now.Ral.Americians.cant.work.and.millions.lost.homes.cars.and.everything.they.worked.for..look.at.food/gas/rent..everything.going.up..he.will.SCREW.middle.class..Were.in.another.war..troops.now.fighting.in.Africia..left.media.is.lying..CNN.ESPN..lied.to.us..hes.not.man.of.the.year....HES.LIER.CON.TERREST.OF.THE.YEAR..Whatch.SHANN.HANITY.they.will.tell.the.truth..yes.youll.call.me.an.IDIOT..see.pages.first..see.veidoes..then.call.me.an.idiot..(IMPEACH.THE.PRESEDENT)...sorry.key.pad.is.droken...

Freebird
Freebird

I have just cancelled my subscription to TIME because of the absurd and idiotic choice of Person of the Year.  We can't think of a worse choice.

KeithDPatch
KeithDPatch

For a few decades some people have been claiming we've already reached "Peak Oil," and predicting that oil production is about to fall off world-wide.

Now people on the opposite end or the spectrum are predicting the USA is going to be energy self-sufficient in 10-20 years or so.

I think the truth lies in between those two views.

--Keith

http://blog.fuelcellnation.com

Durang
Durang

The man is absolutely right,invest on renewable energy as much as it makes sense, but keep expanding fossil fuels minining using only necessary caution.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Wow, Time Magazine, you might as well openly declare yourself to be A Lapdog of the Obama Administration.

If President Bush had expanded oil/natural gas, you know quite well that the Bush Administration would have been eviscerated by your editorial staff.  

That statement of fact is made most clear by your repetitions of the the following sentiment:  "Well, the President didn't quite adequately address those environmental concerns before, but gosh darn it he's on the right track."

It would take a real ignoramus to not realize just how pathetically you've disguised your bias.  Just admit that the President 'gives you a wicked hard-on' (or, as fellow Obama lapdog, Chris Matthews says, "Sends shivers up my leg.").

At least you would be leveling with your readership, and not publishing absolute drivel that masquerades as objective journalism.

JKBullis
JKBullis

Rather than smashing the Keystone Pipeline project, which was accomplished through the ruse that the State Department should look into the already permitted project, maybe a more constructive negotiation with Canada could have been started.

This could be a coincident project to build an aquaduct to divert water from Northern Lakes in Canada to a point where it could be injected into the Nebraska Aquifer. 

If they really were being careless about locating the Keystone pipeline over an important aquifer, that should be met with heavy regulatory scrutiny.  I don't know if that was real or not, but the fiery rhetoric seemed mostly to be related to the CO2 impact of this path for oil to come to us. 

AdrianWong
AdrianWong

Mistake in the second paragraph, guys..."which had already expended political health care on capital;" should say "which had already expended political capital on health care;"

DREGstudios
DREGstudios

Obama has time and time again tried to champion Clean Energy Sources. Public access to real facts is being whitewashed by this rhetoric while conservative hands paint the Blackface on our President. Watch them mix and apply the paints to his face in a portrait of Obama being Bamboozed by the Far Right at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/10/bamboozling-obama.html

JKBullis
JKBullis

We will know someday that President Obama was in charge when the Second Law of Thermodynamics was repealed.  Well, uh, he let the Secy. of Energy handle that, uh well, Secy. Chu let the EPA be the herd of pigs sent running through the minefield on that.  So far there have been not many mines exploded on this.  I keep working on it.

An explanation you ask?  The CAFE standards are easily achieved under the MPGE rule, in fact, so easily that the CAFE directive can be followed with the same fleet of gas guzzlers we have now, as long as a few electric vehicles are also turned out.   Of course this will reduce oil usage, but it will be simply a switch to coal as the basis of energy.  For many years to come it looks like the MPGE formula cheats on the Second Law by a factor of three.   

Of course if there is a ruinous burden put on the use of coal such that virtually all coal is stopped, the shift could be taken up by natural gas.  Even then the MPGE formula cheats on reality by a factor of two. 

I think though that the advisors to Pres. Obama tricked him on this. 

JerWilcoxen
JerWilcoxen

"The environment was one area where the President was less than historic..."What about his 2016 CAFE directive? (Projected reduction in oil consumption of approximately 1.8 billion barrels (290,000,000 m3) over the life of the program and a projected total reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of approximately 900 million metric tons.)

Or his 2025 CAFE directive? (Increase fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025.)Oh, wait, it was mentioned.  "-thanks as well to increases in U.S. fuel efficiency..."  

Yeah, nice glazing over of that.

rhondakelly07
rhondakelly07

@mrbomb13 .odama.is.LIER.CON.HOME.GROWN.TERREST.OF.THE.YEAR..WATCH.HIM.SCREW.US.MIDDLE.CLASS.USE.ELLIGALS.TO.STEAL.WORK.HOMES.EVERYTHING.WE.WORKED.FOR..THEY.STOLED.THE.VOTE.FOR.HIM.AMERICIAS.SCREWED.THE.LEFT.MEDIA.SUCKS.CNN.ESPN..ect..LOOK.AT.FOOD.MILK../GAS/RENT.EVERYTHING.TO.HIGH.THE.ANTICHRIST.RADICIAL.MUSLIUM..and.LEFT.MEDIA.ARE.LIERS.ALSO..WATCH.SHANN.HANNITY.....just.look.at.food.at.everything...ARMENGETION.....sorry.key.pad.is.droken