Has the Environment Become a Non-Issue in the 2012 Presidential Race?
Then there are old-fashioned fossil fuels. In the past decade, as gasoline prices have soared, many politicians have called for opening up new areas for drilling, including the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the Alaskan coast and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Romney supports drilling in both; Obama opposes it in the refuge.) Meanwhile, the oil industry is pushing for more production on federal lands—even as there’s been a boom in drilling for “tight oil” from shale rock on private and state lands.
The next president will have to strike a balance. For example, as Audubon went to press the Interior Department was expected to make a final call on whether to allow Shell to drill for oil in the biologically rich Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Recent reports, including one last year from the U.S. Geological Survey, have warned that there’s great uncertainty about how drilling (and possible spills) could affect the area’s wildlife and habitat. As such, in January nearly 600 scientists urged President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to put off a final decision until further research could be carried out. And in July Audubon and nine other environmental groups sued the Interior Department, arguing it had violated the Clean Water Act by failing to ensure that Shell could address a “worst case oil spill.”
There’s also the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry diluted bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries. A March Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans thought the government should approve the pipeline. Yet oil from the tar sands is also filthier than conventional crude—emitting up to 20 percent more lifecycle greenhouse gases, on average, than other transportation fuels used in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service—and requires clearing huge swaths of Alberta’s vast boreal forests, a breeding ground for tens of millions of birds. For now the Obama administration has postponed approval of the pipeline, citing, among other concerns, water contamination (the proposed pipeline also would have run through sandhill and whooping crane habitat in Nebraska). But the next White House occupant will have to give a final thumbs up or down. (Romney says he’d approve the pipeline on day one.)
If that’s not enough, there’s the raging issue of shale-gas fracking. New technology has allowed drillers nationwide to fracture shale rock and extract natural gas. Each year thousands of new wells are being punched into the ground. In some states, including Pennsylvania, fears persist that the chemicals used could seep into local water supplies. The drilling process also causes air pollution. And in northeast Ohio wastewater disposal from drilling activities has been linked to earthquakes. The next administration will likely face calls to resolve these problems. Kenneth Green, an energy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, says that there’s a growing divide on shale-gas fracking. Many liberals would prefer that the EPA regulate fracking, he says, while Romney and many conservatives prefer to leave oversight to the states, which would speed up drilling.
These issues—and others—may well consume, perhaps even devour, the next president’s time. So it’s inexcusable that neither candidate will talk about them. Some matters are too important to be left to pollsters.