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Green Vote Cools Toward Obama Risking a Replay of Gore-Nader

Obama Campaign Foot Soldiers Now Arrested Over Environment
Hundreds of environmentalists have been arrested over the past two weeks to urge President Barack Obama to block TransCanada Corp.’s proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline. Photo: Sonja Y. Foster/Bloomberg

Betsy Taylor knocked on doors to woo voters to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and donated $1,000. This week, she spent a day seated outside the White House gates protesting his environmental policies.

Taylor, 56, is among almost 600 demonstrators who have been arrested since Aug. 20 in a bid to get Obama to block TransCanada Corp.’s proposed $7 billion oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast, according to protest organizers.

“We gave so much to his campaign,” Taylor said, tearing up as she walked to the protest site on Aug. 29. In next year’s re-election campaign, she said, “I’m going to vote for him, but will I work for him? Will I give him money? I don’t know.”

Taylor and fellow protesters said they fear being let down again by a president they counted on for change, after the State Department found on Aug. 26 that the pipeline poses little environmental risk. Environmental groups say Obama hasn’t fought hard enough to cap greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change and fault him for resuming offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico after last year’s BP Plc spill.

“We will see an enthusiasm deficit” toward Obama in the campaign, Michael Brune, executive director of the 1.4 million-member Sierra Club, said in an interview with Bloomberg Government. “We won’t see our members volunteering 20 or 25 or 30 hours a week. We won’t see bus-loads of people from California going to canvass in Reno, Nevada, or Sierra Club members from Chicago going to Ohio. We won’t see the same passion and intensity.”

Gore, Nader

Democratic Vice President Al Gore paid a price in his 2000 presidential campaign for the splintering of environmentalists’ votes. Leaders of some groups, including in Florida, endorsed the independent candidacy of Ralph Nader instead.

Gore, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, lost Florida by 537 votes in the official tally, making Republican George W. Bush president. Nader garnered 97,488 votes in the state.

Nader predicted in April that Obama will win re-election, in part because “the liberal base has nowhere to go to send a message” this time. Still, apathy among voters sympathetic to environmentalist goals may prove costly to Obama, according to Doug Schoen, who was a strategist for President Bill Clinton.

“Obama won the election because the left, young people who are disproportionately environmentalists, came out in huge numbers,” Schoen said in an interview yesterday. “If he doesn’t have the kind of support he had from the left, from young people, from environmentalists, he is not going to be re-elected. It’s as simple as that.”

NASA’s Hansen, Actor Hannah

The sit-down protests outside the White House have drawn arrests of environmental figures from James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, to actor Daryl Hannah, who starred in the 1984 mermaid movie “Splash.”

The critics say TransCanada’s pipeline, which would carry crude extracted from Alberta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries, would worsen global warming because the heavy Canadian crude produces more greenhouse gases than conventional oil. The State Department has said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has jurisdiction over the pipeline because it would cross an international border, will make a final decision by the end of the year.

Under Obama, “there have been some huge disappointments, and some huge successes,” said Navin Nayak, senior vice president of the League of Conservation Voters, which spent $2 million supporting Democrats and $1 million opposing Republicans in the 2008 elections. “Those who were passionate about an Obama presidency want a reason to be passionate again.”

Fuel Standards

Among the successes cited by environmentalists are standards announced in July for cars and trucks that will double fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Environmentalists also praise the 2009 stimulus bill for providing $90 billion in loan guarantees for energy efficiency and the development of renewable power sources such as batteries for electric vehicles.

“President Obama has planted the seeds necessary to transition the nation to a clean-energy economy,” Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said in an e-mail. He said that stands in contrast to Republicans who advocate “turning back the clock on our progress.”

Environmental voters may vote for Obama less out of hope than fear of his Republican opponents who are attacking the administration’s environmental regulations, according to Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth in Washington.

Perry, Bachmann

“If we’re unexcited about what he’s done, our members will be unexcited, and that excitement gap does cost votes,” Pica said in an interview. “Our members aren’t going to vote for Rick Perry.”

Texas Governor Perry, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has said scientific findings that humans are causing climate change are a hoax.

“There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects,” Perry said Aug. 17 in Bedford, New Hampshire.

Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, also a Republican presidential contender, has pledged to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, which she has called “the job-killing organization of America.”

Republicans in the U.S. House pledged this week to hold a series of votes aimed at blocking proposals by the Environmental Protection Agency to curb pollution from power plants and factories.

Climate Change

Obama faces voters more concerned with the lagging economy than melting glaciers or rising oceans, according to opinion surveys.

Support among Americans for tackling climate change fell to 46 percent in October from 61 percent in July 2006, according to the Pew Research Center. Americans do support the issues Obama has embraced, such as raising fuel efficiency standards and spending more on mass transit, the poll found. The survey taken Oct. 13 to Oct. 18 had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.5 percentage points.

Obama’s strategists may be thinking “who cares about the environment when the economy is this dark,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington and a former EPA official, said in an interview.

Individual and group donations by environmentalists totaled more than $5.3 million to all candidates in the 2008 campaign, with 95 percent of that going to Democrats, according to government data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group in Washington. Obama received $1.1 million.

With volunteers such as Taylor of Takoma Park, Maryland, who works as a consultant to foundations funding environmental causes, Obama also benefited from long hours of knocking on doors in battleground states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania.

“I give him credit for some of the great things he has done, but I am feeling angry at the president,” Taylor said. She said Obama should make the case to Americans about the need to tackle global climate change. “We need him to do it, but it’s unclear if he will step up.”

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