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Sustainability Progress Report: How Did the Obama Administration Live Up to Its Green Promises from
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By Matt Chester

As President Obama began his presidency, many hoped he would be the standard bearer for a green revolution, focusing on clean energy and combating climate change. In the years prior, the United States had seen gas prices skyrocket from $1.53 per gallon in 2000 to $3.30 per gallon by 2008. Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" was sounding alarms in public debate, and a record number of Americans (72 percent) reported belief in man-made global warming. With his presidency winding down, it’s worth asking whether the president was able to fulfill his campaign sustainability promises.

In 2008, Obama’s Blueprint for Change prioritized energy as a key area of focus, underscoring the need for a systemic transformation away from carbon-based sources and highlighting the economic and security benefits such a shift would deliver. That plan has seen many positive and some mixed results.

The 'All of the Above' Policy: Mixed Results

The Obama administration sent clear signals that clean coal (carbon capture and storage) and nuclear power were going to find a place in the nation’s energy agenda. The idea was to bring the nation’s polarized energy proponents together, but the promise of clean coal has proved elusive. Southern Company’s massive Kemper demonstration project in Mississippi is $4 billion over budget and two years behind schedule. On the other hand, nuclear power fared well under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, but the plan is now stalled in the courts. Under the plan, states can take more credit for carbon-free electricity to be generated by nuclear power plants under construction as they work to comply with emission-reduction targets set in the United States. Closure of existing reactors won’t count, casting in doubt the fate of units at risk of premature retirement.

Clean Tech Investment and Job Growth: Partially Successful

Obama vowed to invest “$150 billion over 10 years to deploy clean technologies…and create millions of new jobs.” While the investment piece was achieved — surpassing $150 billion in clean tech spending by 2014, largely through the stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) — millions of clean tech jobs were not created. The United States only added 70,000 according to the Brookings Institution. Many reasons are offered for the dearth of green jobs. Two often cited are the sustained conservative attacks on the president’s legislative agenda and the continuing economic stagnation, which few if any economists understood would be so long lasting.

Increasing Renewable Electricity Mix: Mostly Successful

The administration also promised to increase the percentage of renewably generated electricity to 10 percent by 2012, up to 25 percent by 2025. The first target was exceeded, reaching 12 percent by 2012, but plateaued at 13 percent through 2015. While renewable energy generation would have increased without intervention, reports from Resources for the Future and DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy confirm that tax credits, grants and other federal incentives have contributed significantly to this accelerated adoption and to the renewable energy gains thus far.

Increasing Industrial Energy Efficiency: Forward Progress, Awaiting Results

Consistent with his campaign promises to promote energy efficiency with industrial manufacturers, President Obama issued an executive order in 2010 requiring reduction of waste, upgrading of buildings and formal public-private cooperation to achieve $100 billion in energy savings. While the mandate has been put in place, the savings were to be measured over 10 years so it remains to be seen if these savings will be achieved.

Eliminating Tax Breaks for Big Oil: No Progress

Eliminating tax breaks to big oil companies has been on the president’s agenda since first taking office and were reaffirmed during his 2012 campaign. However, Congress has rejected every annual attempt to do so via budget requests.

EPA’s Landmark Clean Power Plan to Reduce Carbon Emissions: Jury Still Out

On August 3, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency, led by Gina McCarthy, an Obama administration appointee, finalized new rules that would have reduced carbon emissions from power plants for the first time. Historically, power plants have been allowed to release unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. On February 9, the Supreme Court placed a hold on the Clean Power Plan, which will remain in place until a lower court rules on the merits and the Supreme Court either refuses to hear the case or rules on the merits.

Overall Report: Mixed, with Legacy Riding on Successor

President Obama’s green legacy will be viewed as progressive, with mixed results. He was the first president to declare unequivocally that climate change is fact. He embraced a newfound enthusiasm for sustainability and leveraged executive powers to drive his energy agenda more than any predecessor had. In the end, the president leaves office with notable progress, many promises unfulfilled and a Congress hostile to energy regulation. With respect to lasting impact, much of that will rest in the hands of Obama’s successor and will depend on whether she or he embraces clean energy investments, policy and action with the same enthusiasm as Obama has.

Matt Chester is a member of the Clean Tech team at Accenture Federal Services, with a background in engineering and energy policy. The Clean Tech team at Accenture Federal Services was started this year to leverage Accenture solutions towards clean tech and energy transformation challenges in the federal space.

 

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