At EPA HQ, Obama says environment and economic development go hand in hand

Source: John McArdle • E&E • Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012

President Obama this afternoon repeatedly emphasized the economic benefits that can be achieved through safeguarding the environment in a brief appearance to thank employees for their work at U.S. EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“I do not buy the notion that we have to make a choice between having clean air and clean water and growing this economy in a robust way,” Obama said. “I think that is a false debate.”

The president’s comments were cheered not only by the crowd of EPA employees who had gathered for his address but also by national environmental officials who said that it is encouraging to hear Obama return to the viewpoint that environmental protection goes hand in hand with a strong economy.

According to Clean Air Watch President Frank O’Donnell, Obama seemed to move away from that viewpoint during the economic and environmental debates of 2011.

“He seemed to diverge from that general perspective in the battle over the ozone standard,” O’Donnell said. “We were very disappointed in how he behaved in that case when he appeared to adopt the viewpoint of adversaries of environmental protection.”

O’Donnell said that Obama appears to have “seen the light after a period of darkness at the White House.”

He added that Obama’s change in tone may have something to do with the departure of White House Chief of Staff William Daley, who submitted his resignation last week and plans to leave Washington at the end of the month. With his deep connections to the business and banking world, Daley was never viewed as a close ally of the environmental movement during his one-year tour in the White House. He is being replaced by Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew

In his address today, Obama pointed to several achievements that EPA and the White House have worked on in the past year that he said demonstrated a commitment to advancing both environmental protection and the U.S. economy.

“We established new fuel economy standards, a historic accomplishment that is going to slash oil consumption by about 12 billion barrels, dramatically reduces pollution that contributes to climate change, and saves consumers thousands of dollars at the pump which they can go spend on something else,” Obama said.

He also talked about money spent through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that put Americans to work ridding neighborhoods of environmental blight.

“We can make sure we are doing right by our environment and in fact putting people back to work across America,” Obama said. “That’s part of our mission.”

O’Donnell said that after Obama’s rousing speech today, it is time for the president to walk the walk, and the most immediate way he can do that is to allow EPA to move forward with new cleaner-burning gasoline standards.

Still, Obama earned credit today from green groups just for showing up and thanking EPA employees after the agency has been under assault over the past year from Republicans and conservatives who have laid at least part of the blame for a sluggish economy on the many rules coming out of the agency.

“The president’s much-needed trip to the EPA is a breath of fresh air amid the GOP smoke and mirrors surrounding the agency,” wrote NRDC Action Fund Director Heather Taylor-Miesle in a blog post today. “Republicans have literally wasted more than a year wrongly blaming the sour economy on EPA, instead of addressing the real causes for our economic meltdown. The tally so far: 191 votes taken in the House to undermine environmental protections.”

EPA employee Diane Lynne, who serves as president of the EPA headquarters chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she was grateful for the visit and the chance to shake the president’s hand today.

“It’s always nice to have the president of the United States come and tell you how hard you’re working and what a great job you’re doing,” Lynne said. “You really feel you are in the right line of work as a public servant.”

John O’Grady, who serves as treasurer for the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which is AFGE’s main union for EPA employees, said the kind words by Obama today were appreciated but that the president has yet to back them up with any kind of support for federal employees.

In fact, O’Grady said, Obama has probably harmed federal employee morale by recently proposing a minuscule 0.5 percent pay increase following a two-year pay freeze.

“What we’re hoping is that the president does more than just tell us he appreciates us and our work and that he shows that appreciation in solid actions,” O’Grady said this afternoon. “The 0.5 percent pay raise proposed for 2013 doesn’t seem to reflect his appreciation. … He was the one who proposed the pay freeze and now he’s going to give us a whopping 0.5 percent. That is just an insult.”