WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is sticking to a fossil-fuel dependent energy policy, delivering a blow to a monthslong, behind-the-scenes effort by nearly every major environmental group to convince the White House that the policy is at odds with his goals on global warming.
The division between Obama and some of his staunchest supporters has been simmering for months, a surprising schism that shows the fine line the environmental community has walked with a Democratic president who has taken significant steps on climate change, and the recalcitrance of Obama's White House when it is criticized, even by its allies.
Days before Obama's State of the Union speech, the heads of 18 environmental groups sent a letter to the president that had long been in the works saying his policy doesn't make sense. They see a contradiction in increased American production of energy from oil and natural gas at the same time the government is attempting to reduce the pollution blamed for global warming.
"We believe that continued reliance on an 'all-of-the-above' energy strategy would be fundamentally at odds with your goal of cutting carbon pollution," they wrote.
But in his Tuesday night speech, Obama proclaimed that embracing all forms of energy, even carbon-pollution fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, is working.
"Taken together, our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet," said Obama.
White House officials knew last spring that a letter objecting to Obama's energy policy was in the works. They urged the environmental groups to wait until after Obama delivered a speech on climate change in June, hoping his aggressive steps on global warming would change their minds.
"There is a cognitive dissonance inside the administration. We believe their commitment to fight climate change is genuine, and yet the energy policy goals of the administration make addressing climate change much more difficult," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in an interview with the Associated Press.
The environmental groups' stance could be dismissed as advocacy groups just doing what they do – pushing the president to go further on an issue important to their members. Already, they have protested a pipeline project carrying Canadian tar sands oil into the U.S., fought to shutter coal-fired power plants and opposed hydraulic fracturing.
But for the major groups, the letter marked new territory, the first time the lobby has been both united and sharply critical of Obama's central environmental issue and one they support in principle: curbing climate change.
"Not a lot of these groups have said it aloud. It does mark a shift in environmental community," said Maura Cowley, executive director of the Energy Action Coalition, who signed the letter.
That shift was clear in the reaction to Obama's State of the Union. Groups that had viewed the June climate speech positively pointed out what they saw as a flaw in logic in the president's remarks Tuesday night.
"An 'all-of-the-above energy strategy' cannot work for the president's own climate action plan and the climate vision he espoused," said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, who also signed the letter. "We should not be locking ourselves into fossil fuel dependence that doesn't pass the president's own climate test."
The idea to take on Obama's all-of-the-above energy strategy began to take shape at a retreat in upstate New York in May. As the groups privately pressed the White House to adjust its policy, White House officials pushed them to hold off on the letter until after the climate speech.
The letter was sent Jan. 16.
The White House objected to its substance, arguing that it is possible to control emissions even as fossil fuel production climbs.
John Podesta, an Obama senior adviser, wrote that he was "surprised" the groups moved forward with the letter, especially since the White House has had to fend off repeated attacks from Republicans and the fossil fuel industry on its environmental policies.
No one in the environmental community is knocking what Obama has achieved. He has secured deals to double the fuel economy for cars and trucks, greatly expanded renewable energies such as wind and solar power and has proposed the first-ever limits on carbon dioxide pollution from future coal-fired power plants.
This summer, the Obama administration is expected to take on the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution by proposing limits for existing coal-fired power plants.
Yet, at the same time, the number of rigs drilling offshore in the Gulf of Mexico has returned to levels not seen since the BP oil spill. Oil production and natural gas production are booming, largely on private lands where the administration has little control, and as a result so is the heat-trapping pollution from those operations. While U.S. greenhouse gas emissions declined 4.5 percent overall from 2011 to 2012, thanks in part to a switch from coal to natural gas for electricity production being helped along by Obama, emissions from oil and gas production were up and second to only power plants when it comes to global warming.
"They know they are doing more than previous administrations and we know that too," said David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, one of the environmental groups that signed the letter. "They aren't doing what the moment requires, and they know that too."
Or as, Bill McKibben, a founder of 350.org and frequent critic of the administration's pro-fossil fuel strategies, said, "If you double the number of drilling rigs in the country and open up huge swaths of [public lands] to mining, and then you also put up some solar panels, it's like having a Weight Watchers brownie after you've eaten four pints of Ben and Jerry's." McKibben did not sign the letter.
Copy of letter sent to White House: http://bit.ly/1aCByNL
Follow Dina Cappiello on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dinacappiello
Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC
EDITOR'S NOTE _ An occasional look at how Washington works _ or doesn't.