In an age of environmental degradation, peaking supplies of oil, and global political upheaval, President Barack Obama’s rhetoric has not asked for the kind of changes that could help the nation move gracefully towards a low energy future. However, he does seem to have at least one transportation legacy that he is working on: high-speed rail (HSR).
Oil and Upheaval
Unfortunately for Obama, his administration has been plagued by circumstances in the making long before he was elected. On the evening of April 20, 2010, an explosion occurred on the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig in American waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people died, and over the next few months, 4.9 million barrels of crude oil spilled into the gulf, making it the worst environmental disaster in American history. Then, on November 3, Republicans regained a majority in the House of Representatives and narrowed the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate (Obama is a Democrat).
This was followed by street rebellions which broke out in December in North Africa and the Middle East, and have so far toppled two dictatorships in a region whose stability is considered vital to the access of multi-national extraction corporations to oil and gas reserves, and vital to nearly 300 million Americans whose energy-intensive lives depend on those resources. Those corporations have for decades depended on the American military and American diplomacy for protection of that access, including American support for repressive dictatorships – and the United States has in turn depended on those nations for assistance in fighting terrorism. (In fact, since at least 1981, Egypt, the site of the second toppled dictatorship, has been the second largest recipient of American foreign aid, after only Israel, at more than $60 billion – though about $34 billion of that aid has come back to the United States for the purchase of weapons.)
The Rhetoric: No New Changes
However, Obama has shied away from saying truths that few want to hear. While running for president in 2008 he campaigned in part on a platform of ‘clean coal’ – an oxymoron if ever there was one. And in a November 4, 2010 speech acknowledging Republican gains, he said, “We’ve got terrific natural gas resources in this country. Are we doing everything we can to develop those?” Indeed, there is an estimated proved reserve of 6.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the United States, according to the March 30, 2010 Scientific American. Obama is also calling for there to be one million electric vehicles on American roads by 2015. However, this natural gas, which could be used to fire up the power plants that could generate the electricity for electric cars, is locked in rock and releasing it from that rock requires a controversial drilling process called ‘fracking,’ a process that may result in water poisoning.
Response to the Oil Spill and Upheaval
For months after the April 2010 spill, the administration vacillated on whether or not to impose a drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. As of this writing, a de facto moratorium is in place, as the administration has not issued new permits. But a federal judge ruled on February 17 that the administration must decide within 30 days whether or not to issue a permit to resume drilling in the Gulf. (Democratic and Republican governors along the coast are pressing Obama to resume that drilling – arguing that such a measure would create jobs.)
Meanwhile, the United States has long maintained good relations with the repressive governments that are now being rocked by popular revolts, and Obama’s reaction to the revolts has made him appear ill-prepared to negotiate transitions to democracy. In early February, to the disappointment of many hoping for true change, his administration threw its support behind Omar Suleiman as the person to lead the Egyptian transition. However, Suleiman has had a long association with American intelligence agencies, helping them to craft cooperative extraordinary rendition and torture policies.
The Proposed Budget
The $3.7 trillion Fiscal 2012 budget Obama unveiled in mid-February includes a six-year, $556 billion surface transportation plan that would boost spending on high-speed rail, public transit, and livability programs. Obama has also proposed creating a national Infrastructure Bank.
The budget has “a lot of forward looking [proposals] within the parameters of executive action,” says David Goldberg of Transportation for America, the country’s largest and broadest coalition working on the reform of national transportation policy. “The era of highway building is done. The big project we have as a nation is to build out the public transportation system.” In fact, the budget includes $8 billion for the first year of a six-year, $53 billion HSR investment plan.
However, the Republican takeover means that the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will go from being chaired by the bicycle and transit-friendly former Democratic Congressman James Oberstar to Republican John L. Mica. And what are the Republican plans? According to Transportation for America, the Republican House plans to “eliminate the main federal transit program, zero out Amtrak (the publicly-owned cross country passenger rail), cut all funding to Washington, D.C.’s metro system, and slash $2.5 billion in high speed rail grants.” These cuts are part of their overall goal to slash the federal budget by $100 billion, though that figure represents a mere 2.5 percent of the total annual budget. (As of February 19, Amtrak has survived the budget axe, and the Republicans have proposed slashing the budget by $60 billion.) The Republican governor of the state of Florida has even rejected federal funds for HSR on the basis that there is a funding gap in the proposed Florida HSR.
Obama, then, who ran for office on the theme of change, may truly want change – but it’s hard to tell, given the American political landscape, if his presidency will lead to changes in transportation.
—- Susan Vaughan is a freelance writer, educator, artist, and gardener in San Francisco, California. She occasionally maintains her blog, Car-Free Talk.