Obama and Harper — Modes of Support for Fossil Fuel Development
The collision between climate science and energy politics, and threats to freedom of communication, are playing out differently in the United States and Canada, Rick Piltz, founder and director of Climate Science Watch, writes
08 Oct 13

(Photo Illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo Illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo Illustration: Shutterstock)

The continuing advance of climate science, as reflected in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recently released Fifth Assessment Report, points ever more strongly to the need for an expedited phase-out of carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Only a fundamental transformation of the current energy system during the coming decades may make it possible to avert disastrous impacts of global climatic disruption.

Carrying out such a transformation would be a political, economic, and technological challenge under the best of circumstances. But it is made especially difficult by corporate and ideologically driven opposition — most notably, by pressure from fossil fuel production interests to protect their strategic position and set the terms for government policymaking.

The United States and Canada exemplify the power of the dominant energy interests. The governments of both countries strongly support the expansion of domestic fossil energy extraction, production, and export. But the collision between climate science and energy politics, and threats to freedom of communication, are playing out differently in the two countries.

With the Harper government in Canada, for years we have witnessed an ongoing repression of climate and environmental science communication by government scientists, along with systematic cutbacks of environmental research and data collection. “Harper’s attack on science: No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy“, an excellent review and discussion in the May 2013 issue of the Canadian journal Academic Matters, itemized a series of moves by the Harper government to control or prevent the free flow of scientific information across Canada, particularly when that information highlights the undesirable consequences of industrial development. The free flow of information is controlled in two ways: through the muzzling of scientists who might communicate scientific information, and through the elimination of research programs that might participate in the creation of scientific information or evidence.

It appears that the issues on which government scientists are subjected to the tightest political control of communications include climate change, the Alberta tar sands, the oil and gas industry, and Arctic wildlife. In other words, issues on which free communication of scientific evidence could pose problems for corporate energy development interests.

The situation in Canada has driven government scientists to hold public protest rallies twice in the last year. In September, rallies in major city centers and on university campuses were held across the country.

“It isn’t the way science is supposed to be. It’s not the way science used to be, the way I remember it in the federal government,” IPCC vice-chair and retired Environment Canada scientist John Stone told The Guardian.

So the Harper government can be said to be following in the footsteps — even surpassing — the record of the former Bush-Cheney administration in the U.S., whose alignment with energy industry interests led them to misrepresent climate science intelligence and impede forthright communication by federal climate scientists.

In the U.S., the Obama administration presents a complex picture that differs from Canada in significant ways, but also suggests the problematic nature of government support for expanded fossil energy extraction and production. The administration appears susceptible to industry pressure aimed at playing down the environmental and societal consequences of fossil energy resource extraction and use.

After several years of near-silence on climate change at the highest levels of U.S. political leadership, in June President Obama finally gave a major public address on climate change (the first by an American president) and laid out a multifaceted Climate Action Plan. The plan focuses on actions that can be taken by the White House and Executive Branch in the absence of action by a Congress that is tied in knots, largely subservient to corporate energy interests, and with much of the Republican Party aligned with the global warming denial machine.

Under Obama, we see a more straightforward acknowledgement of climate science and assessments by the most credible experts, and more straightforward communication on climate by federal research agencies. The forthcoming National Climate Assessment, scheduled for release next spring, will address the implications of climatic disruption for the U.S., across geographical regions and socioeconomic and resource sectors (public health, water resources, food production, coastal zones, and so forth). The importance of national assessments for public discourse was underscored when the Bush administration, in collusion with nongovernmental global warming denialists, suppressed official use of and references to the first National Climate Assessment, which had been completed in 2000.

Yet, despite the numerous constructive action items in Obama’s Climate Action Plan, there appears to be a contradiction at the heart of Obama’s policy, as indicated by the administration’s adoption of what they call an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy development. Obama points to increased U.S. fossil energy extraction as a major accomplishment. U.S. energy development includes ‘mountaintop removal’ coal mining in Appalachia, large-scale coal strip-mining on public lands in the West, and increased coal exports; deepwater drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, even in the wake of the BP oil blowout disaster in 2010, and quite possibly drilling in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska; and a dramatic increase during the past five years in natural gas production using directional drilling technology and hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits that cover a number of large areas across the country.

Natural gas from ‘fracking’ appears to be an essential component of the administration’s climate policy, i.e., relying on the ongoing trend of substitution of natural gas for coal in power plants in order to meet a 2020 goal for reducing U.S. carbon emissions. The Department of the Interior has proposed to open 600 million acres of public land to fracking. But fracking is controversial, raising concerns about contamination of drinking water in affected areas by chemicals used in fracking, large-scale use of water in drilling, air pollution, leaking methane greenhouse gas emissions, and industrial degradation of rural landscapes. Environmental groups have protested at the White House, calling for a moratorium on fracking on public lands.

There are sIgns that the administration may be allowing political pressure from the natural gas industry to compromise investigations by the Environmental Protection Agency into fracking contamination incidents. The EPA has pulled back from several high-profile investigations in a manner that raises questions about whether this indicates a pattern of failure to act on scientific evidence. When the EPA’s scientists found evidence that fracking was contaminating water supplies, the EPA stopped or slowed down their work in in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming.

“Not only does this pattern of behavior leave impacted residents in the lurch, but it raises important questions as to whether the agency is caving to pressure from industry, antagonistic members of Congress and/or other outside sources,” Kate Sinding at the Natural Resources Defense Council notes. “This trend also calls into serious question the agency’s commitment to conducting an impartial, comprehensive assessment of the risks fracking presents to drinking water—a first-of-its-kind study that is now in its fourth year, with initial results now promised in 2014.” The EPA recently announced that it has delayed the expected final date of this study until 2016 — Obama’s eighth and final year in office. Meanwhile, industry continues to create a fait accompli of radically expanded fracking operations.

Obama has adopted a forward-looking position on climate change. But his ‘all of the above’ energy policy, and particularly his full-speed-ahead support for shale gas fracking, raises the question of whether politics is impeding freedom of communication by government experts — and whether the EPA is thereby being impeded in doing its job of protecting the public against the environmental dangers of fossil fuel development.

This article was originally published on 8 Oct 2013 at

By Rick Piltz

Rick Piltz is the founder and director of Climate Science Watch, a program of the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C.