The White House Punts on Policies That Affect People of Color

Rather than supporting activists, it seems that the White House is simply gearing up for the election by attempting to protect itself from particularly liberal-friendly policies until the campaign is over.

By Shani O. Hilton Nov 16, 2011

When the White House announced last week it was pushing off a decision on the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline until after the 2012 election, many activists celebrated.

The pipeline is to be an extension to a Canada-U.S. duct that would carry oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. Opponents argued that it would damage indigenous lands and potentially contaminate the Oglala aquifer, and the New York Times editorial board fretted about the effects of spills.

"A done deal has come spectacularly undone," said Bill McKibben, an activist and movement leader with, in a statement. He added, "The president deserves thanks for making this call—it’s not easy in the face of the fossil fuel industry and its endless reserves of cash."

Conventional wisdom holds that with the president’s punt on the pipeline decision, the plan will die. "If the administration delays the project long enough where it becomes a low probability it will ever get through the process in time to meet [the shippers’] needs, they’re not going to support us anymore," Russell Girling, TransCanada’s president and CEO told Politico.

Yet on Monday, the Keystone XL planners agreed to bypass the Sandhills area of Nebraska—a key battleground in an ecologically delicate area—in order to save their $7 billion deal. It’s a sign that TransCanada, which is eager to sell more oil to the U.S., isn’t giving up anytime soon.

And it’s a sign that, by delaying the decision, Obama may not be signaling to environmentalists and native people what they thought he was signaling. TransCanada’s immediate announcement that it would try to comply with requests after refusing to budge at all during the negotiations suggests that the White House was both staving off controversy and also calling the company’s bluff. Which may in turn lead to a win for TransCanada.

"The environmentalists have backed themselves into a corner by focusing so much on the routing," says Jon Entine of the American Enterprise Institute. "If the State Department follows protocol and judges this purely on the basis of the routing issue, it’s a checkmate for TransCanada."

Rather than supporting activists, it seems that the White House is simply gearing up for the election by attempting to protect itself from particularly liberal-friendly policies until the campaign is over.

The Environmental Protection Agency has begun mapping out its 2012 moves—but most are unlikely to be implemented until late in the year. And some, which would have had a substantial impact on communities of color, have been halted already.

For example, despite the current rules regulating ground-level smog, which EPA head Lisa Jackson has called "legally indefensible," in September, Obama requested that Jackson withdraw the long-delayed draft proposal for controlling smog emissions, reasoning that new rules would be considered in 2013. (These new rules, of course, would then have to go through a lengthy, months-long process before implementation is a possibility.)

When the new rules were announced over the summer, before Obama’s decision to halt them, Jackson called them "another long overdue step to protect the air we breathe and that our children breathe."

Yet the White House, facing enormous pressure from Congressional Republicans, opted to let the regulations die, leaving in place rules weaker than those that existed under the George W. Bush administration.

"Numerous studies have found that poor and non-white members of the population reside in areas with the worst air pollution," write the authors of one report on children and car pollution.

Smog and asthma among black children have a strong correlation. Since children of color more likely to live in cities where ground-level ozone levels—which are increased by power plants, cars, and industrial facilities—are concentrated, studies have shown that doing something as simple as playing outside can trigger asthma.

And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, blacks are three times more likely than whites to die of asthma-related issues, while black children have a 500 percent higher death rate from asthma than white children.

The EPA has also agreed to finalize its rules on coal-fired plant pollution in 43 states by the very convenient month of November, in 2012. Blacks are far more likely to live near to coal-fired plants than other groups. Sixty-eight percent of black Americans live within 30 miles of one. And as Colorlines has reported previously, 13,000 people are expected to die prematurely due to fine-particle coal pollution. 

So what does this all mean? It’s easy to say that is Obama throwing people of color under the bus for political expediency: After all, the effects of pollution don’t lie, and there are clear signs that government intervention can mitigate those effects. But Obama also wants to get re-elected, and right now conservatives are playing the role of squeaky wheel. In order for the constituents he’s ignoring to get some grease, it’s likely they’re going to have to start making some noise.