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Obama's new course will boost economy, environment


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POSTED: Monday, February 09, 2009

IN its first three weeks, the Obama administration has moved to curb greenhouse gases and toxic chemical emissions and increase efficiency standards for household appliances and vehicles, while taking a more balanced approach on fossil-fuel exploration on public lands.

The actions, in stark contrast to those of the previous administration, reflect an understanding that environmental concerns aren't unrelated to pocketbook issues and the nation's long-term energy prospects.

The shifts put the country on a sound course that can create more jobs and produce a cleaner environment.

President Obama last week ordered the Energy Department to draft efficiency standards for a range of products, from ovens, dishwashers and light bulbs to industrial boilers.

The standards had been on the books for three decades, but previous administrations had failed to draw up regulations for enforcement. Efficiencies in fluorescent and reflector light bulbs alone can save businesses and consumers as much as $67 billion over 30 years.

After a 2005 lawsuit brought by states and environmental and consumer organizations, a federal court ordered the Bush administration to put them in place, but just seven of 22 had been completed by the end of his term.

Obama's predecessor spent much time and capital fighting environmental laws in court. It is encouraging then that the new president has chosen not to continue down that path, withdrawing from a Supreme Court battle on a ruling that the government must install tougher rules to cut mercury emissions from power plants.

Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency, which under Bush didn't do much protecting, will craft new rules to curb discharges of the chemical that finds its way into food supplies and can damage brain development of fetuses and young children.

Obama also is reviewing the Bush administration's denial of a waiver for California and 13 other states to set stricter auto emission standards, as allowed under the Clean Air Act. The auto industry had convinced Bush that making two sets of vehicles to comply with differing standards would be burdensome, but cleaner cars would no doubt be welcome in any state. Obama plans to have temporary rules in place by next month to give automakers time to retool vehicles for compliance in two years.

In its final days, the Bush administration rushed to auction 77 parcels of federal land in Utah for oil and gas exploration. However, there wasn't enough time to finalize the sales and Ken Salazar, the new Interior secretary, canceled the leases for further review.

The public lands—some near national parks and fragile historic landmarks—and air quality were subject to damage. The extractive industries, which were awarded almost three times as many permits in the past four years than in the Clinton years, have their hands on enough public acreage as it is and have left much of it unexplored. Obama's tack better balances energy exploration and land conservation.