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

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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