With the inauguration just days away, green hopes are riding high as the country prepares for a new direction regarding environmental issues. President-elect Barack Obama has suggested that energy independence is his top priority after stabilizing the economy, encouraging a sense of optimism about his promises for revamped environmental and energy legislation. After eight years of misguided policies, however, Obama will face some of the most crucial eco-challenges in U.S. history - climate change, energy security, weakened regulations and renewable energy technologies, to name a few. He'll also be trying to grow a new, green economy - especially as the extant economy has withered, seemingly on its way to death. But these eco-battles are all win-able. So here are seven suggestions for how the new administration might tackle the issues that lie ahead, and help to guarantee a sustainable future for the country:
1) Overhaul the EPA: The officially stated responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment. But it seems for the last eight years it's been doing everything but that — from increasing ozone limits to allowing rocket fuel in our drinking water to preventing states from setting emissions caps to censoring scientific testimonies on the dangers of global warming. Across-the-board policies of political interference in the agency's workings has left it little more than a weakened arm of the Bush administration's agenda of deregulation and loosened environmental standards.
Advice for the Obama administration? Put the EPA's $7.2 billion dollar budget and thousands of employees to good use by letting them get back to what they're supposed to be able to do best. Lisa Jackson seems like a strong choice to head the agency. This chemical engineer and Princeton alum spent 15 years with the U.S. EPA before heading New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, where she passed legislation requiring mandatory cuts in carbon emissions and worked with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative on developing a regional cap-and-trade system. Says Sierra Club honcho Jeff Tittel: "She's always stood up for principles. Quite frankly, she'd be an outstanding choice." Long-term goals for the EPA are seemingly endless, but putting Jackson's experience to good use and lowering the federal cap on vehicle emissions is one good place to start. Oil prices might be down for now, but let's not forget that 33 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions come from automobiles.
2) Raise the bar on food and drug standards: The FDA and the USDA are in serious need of a patch up. Gather 'round the campfire, if you dare, and check out some of these ghoulish tales on how cloned animals are being allowed to wriggle their way into the food chain, and how blanket immunities may be doled out to big pharmaceutical companies whose FDA-approved drugs cause severe side effects or worse. Even organic foods aren't safe anymore, with many organic farmers and advocacy groups calling for the reverse of weakened quality standards, created at the behest of agro-corps who want to cash in on the ever-growing demand for safer and healthier foods.
The new administration should strengthen FDA and USDA oversight and make the protection of public welfare their top priority. More regulation on food and drug safety are paramount. Perhaps they'll take a few pages from the playbook of the European Union's European Food Safety Authority, which holds comparatively high standards for food, animal and plant health for those products produced within the EU, as well as imports.
3) Expand the Green Jobs Act: The Green Jobs Act was passed in 2007 as part of the Energy Independence and Security Bill, and will make $120 million available to train 35,000 folks in need in the green energy sector. How about doubling that number, Mr. President-elect? If we can find $700 billion in the mattress to bail out the banking system, couldn't we conceivably find another $100 million to double the number of "green collar" workers in the United States? Urban youth and returning veterans get the job training they need in a growing industry that guarantees them future employment, and our economy gets a well-trained workforce in a growing renewable energy sector. It's win-win for everyone.
4) Set an example for climate change on the international stage: America set an example for the rest of the world by breaking the racial barrier to the highest office in the land. Why stop there? Let's move out of our "global outlier" status on issues of climate change and start forging an international reputation of climate leadership. A new global environmental treaty summit ala the Kyoto Protocol is in the works for December 2009. The proposed cap-and-trade system for industry carbon emissions is just one way the United States can work toward meeting a collective global agreement on lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
5) Rethink the push for "clean" coal technology: Obama has talked a lot about clean coal technology as part of his solution to our growing energy concerns, but how clean is clean coal really? It's a general term used to describe how using coal as energy can be made more environmentally sound through methods such as washing off minerals and impurities, gasification, and carbon capture and storage. Yet many of these methods are far from safe, allowing for extracted impurities to end up in our drinking water. The run-off of sulphur and minerals from washing coal are put into waste piles, and when it rains, those impurities generally end up in rivers and streams. Also, a major obstacle to capture-and-storage methods is that sequestration technology has not been sufficient developed for a mass production scale. Carbon injections into the earth may impact water quality as well. For more on the myths and the facts on clean coal technology, click here.
If the Obama administration is really dedicated to a cleaner, greener energy policy, it should rethink the "clean" coal solution, and instead use taxpayer dollars to subsidize research and investment in wind-, water- and solar-energy technologies.
6) Increase federal tax credits for energy efficiency: The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 bill was signed into law last month, and extends tax credits for energy-efficiency home improvement purchases (insulation, replacement windows, nonsolar water heaters, etc.). The maximum lifetime amount, however, is just $500 and can only be claimed for the years 2006, 2007 and 2009. The new administration should extend the credit to purchases made in 2008 and increase the lifetime maximum amount. The Center for American Progress suggests a $1,500 increase to a total of $2,000, and has also encouraged the Obama administration to advertise the tax credit to lower-income families to help them save on energy bills.
7) More hybrids, please: Anything the Obama administration can do to get more hybrid cars on the road and more gas guzzlers off is a good step. Obama's suggested Health Care for Hybrids Act would allow automakers to receive federal assistance to help pay legacy health-care costs if they invest in creating more fuel-efficient cars. Another idea is to increase the federal tax credit on hybrid purchases and remove the tax-credit limit of 60,000 hybrids per carmaker.