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Obama Moves To Cement His Environmental Legacy


It's a good moment to remember something President Obama told us in December. The president said he'd reached a moment that was quote, "liberating."


He said the receding economic crisis left him free to focus on goals he did not have time for in the past. In recent days, the president has made moves on the environment.

INSKEEP: He put millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness off-limits to development.

MONTAGNE: He challenged India on climate change.

INSKEEP: And now he's made proposals on offshore oil and gas drilling, expanding it in some areas while limiting it elsewhere. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama has used his executive authority on the environment aggressively, changing fuel standards for cars, making a greenhouse gas agreement with China and clamping down on dirty power plants. In India this week, the president didn't make a big climate deal like the one he made with China, but he did nudge his Indian hosts on climate change.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Here's the truth. Even if countries like the United States curb our emissions, if countries that are growing rapidly, like India, with soaring energy needs don't also embrace cleaner fuels, then we don't stand a chance against climate change.

LIASSON: And while the president was in India, he was moving to protect millions of acres of wilderness back home in Alaska.


OBAMA: Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place, pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears.

SALLY JEWELL: This is intended to be set aside as a whole ecosystem, and we want to make sure that the president is on record as the administration's position that it is inappropriate to drill there.

LIASSON: That's Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. But if the president wants the protected Alaskan wilderness, or ANWR, to be part of his legacy, he'll need congressional approval. And that will be very difficult, says Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.

SENATOR LISA MURKOWSKI: What the president is proposing has the potential to thwart any development there. I can almost guarantee that this Congress will not approve placing ANWR into wilderness status.

LIASSON: Murkowski was also unhappy about the administration's announcement yesterday to ban offshore drilling in large areas of the Arctic. But the Interior Department, in what it called a balanced approach, also decided to open offshore drilling along the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Georgia, giving the oil and gas industry a victory. That seemingly contradictory package of drilling regulations had environmentalists cheering and jeering at the same time.

If the president's legacy on the environment looks complicated, on balance, he's given the environmental community plenty to celebrate. Bob Deans with the Natural Resources Defense Council points to doubling gas mileage, regulating coal-fired power plants and cutting the climate deal with China.

BOB DEANS: No president anytime, anywhere, on the face of the planet has done more to protect future generations from the dangers of climate change than Barack Obama.

LIASSON: And Deans says even though the president's executive and regulatory actions can be overturned by a future Congress or president, as a practical matter, they'll be hard to reverse because they're creating facts on the ground, new rules that industry will adapt to. And that may be why almost all the president's moves on the environment enrage his opponents, particularly in oil and gas states. But they're not the president's target audience. Greg Dotson at the Democratic think tank Center for American Progress points out that for the White House, the political benefits outweigh the negatives. The president is eager to cement the support of younger voters, crucial to the Democratic Party's future.

GREG DOTSON: If you think about the court constituency that a Democratic candidate is going to want in the next election, they're going to want an energized community that sees solutions to climate change, that sees policies that can cut pollution and having those positively demonstrated by the current administration is going to be helpful to the next candidate.

LIASSON: Helping to smooth the way for a successor of his own party is the best way any president can try to ensure his own legacy. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.