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Obama to Science: See Ya After the Elections!

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View David Lawlor's blog posts
30 June 2011, 1:49 PM
Under mounting political pressure, administration dumps science-based policy

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” – Isaac Asimov

In American culture, perhaps no method or form of knowledge is regarded more highly than science. Philosophy and religion are unsettled debates over unknowable questions; art and poetry are the realms of divine inspiration and the muses. But science, ah science, the bearer of truths heretofore uncovered and the proverbial sledge hammer of objective reality—surely science is where we can find answers about how to govern our land and its people.

Don’t just take my word that science is the penultimate arbiter of truth; President Obama feels (or at least used to) the same way. In a March 2009 presidential memorandum titled “Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies,” the president wrote: “Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, [and] mitigation of the threat of climate change…”

And then gas prices climbed to more than $4 a gallon.

So much for all that nerd-talk about egghead scientists shaping policy. Now we’re back to policy dictated by politics rather than science.

It would have sounded insane a year ago—in the midst of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe with millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico—to suggest that America needed to expand offshore oil drilling. And, for a while at least, the administration indeed took a cautious approach to offshore drilling. First, Obama issued a 6-month moratorium on new deep water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico (although a federal judge lifted the moratorium after less than a month) and as recently as February 2011, Royal Dutch Shell postponed plans drill in the Alaskan Arctic this summer. It's now pushing to drill as early as summer 2012.

But things change quickly in the world of politics. With the 2012 election looming, Obama has switched course. The Hill, a Washington, D.C. newspaper, reported that in mid-May the president pledged to “hold annual onshore lease sales in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve; extend the life of leases in the Gulf of Mexico and in some areas off the coast of Alaska for one year; speed up ongoing Interior Department testing in the mid- and south-Atlantic to gauge the level of resources; and establish an interagency task force to coordinate permitting for offshore drilling in Alaska.”

Science says cleaning up an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic would be near impossible. Science says there isn’t enough oil in the Alaskan Arctic to make a dent in the global oil market. Science says clean renewable energy sources could power the entire world within a few decades. But bollocks to all that! Pressure from anti-environment Republicans in the House coupled with a desire to court voters in key swing states results in an energy policy dictated by shifting political winds rather than scientific fact.

All is not lost, however. There are still many critical environmental policy decisions looming, giving the administration a chance to redeem itself. For example, EPA has been working on a proposal to set stricter limits on ozone pollution for months. The agency has said it will finalize that standard by the end of July. The White House still has final say on what that plan looks like. The proposed tougher ozone standards would safeguard public health and are based on scientific findings by EPA’s own scientists. Obama’s decision on ozone will likely be an indicator of how he will approach environmental issues for the remainder of his term. Environmentalists will be hoping the administration holds to its word and places science over politics.

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