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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

A long game plan for the environment

The Biosphere, Environment Museum, in Montreal's Parc Jean-Drapeau

The Biosphere, Environment Museum, in Montreal's Parc Jean-Drapeau Credit: Handout

On Earth Day, President Barack Obama headed to the Everglades and said once again that "climate change can no longer be denied." Do nothing about it, he added, and the Everglades might cease to exist.

Powerful stuff.

Three weeks later, his administration gave Shell permission to drill for oil in part of the Arctic Ocean, one of the world's most delicate, pristine and forbidding environments.

It sure is an interesting environmental legacy our climate-change-in-chief is carving out.

Obama has been the nation's most powerful elected voice on global warming, casting it as an environmental, public health and national security issue. He spoke forcefully on the need for worldwide agreement on a climate change treaty at talks in Paris in December.

Under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued new regulations on carbon pollution from power plants. Other rules close loopholes in the Clean Water Act. Last week, his administration announced plans to regulate airplane emissions. Rules on carbon emissions from big trucks and methane emissions from oil and natural-gas operations are said to be coming soon.

On the other hand, there's oil. Obama has presided over an expansion of U.S. drilling that has us producing more oil than at any time since 1985, the heyday of Ronald Reagan. We have 18 percent more oil and gas rigs than when Obama took office, and millions more acres open to drilling -- including a huge swath of the Atlantic Ocean off Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia opened in January.

Then there's the Arctic decision.

This one gives me the willies. And it's more than the danger of a big spill in such a remote area -- the feds themselves calculated the risk at 75 percent -- that worries me. The burning of oil is one of the leading producers of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. And the 15 billion barrels estimated to be under the Arctic's Chukchi Sea would produce billions of tons of carbon dioxide.

It's not like we don't know what the long game is here and still we must scramble in the short game of satisfying our thirst for oil. We know the long game, and it's not oil. It's renewables -- solar, wind and the like. And it's not a question of if we transition, but when. Obama gets it. He talks about it all the time. But he says we need more oil to get us to that transition. Which pushes off the date by allowing more drilling.

Last year, BP estimated the world had enough oil reserves to last 53 years. But, you say, those are only the proven reserves. What about the oil we don't know about? OK, add another 53 years. But, you say, what about greater drilling efficiency and conservation? OK, what about population growth and more industrialization in developing countries? But to be generous, let's bump up our oil expectancy to, say, 150 years.

Commercial oil drilling took off after the famed Drake well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. So the oil age figures to span 300 years at best. That's a blip in the arc of human history. If we're going to survive as a species, it's going to be without oil. Why not move aggressively to that future?

One could argue that another 150 years is also a blip, so just let it play out. But look at the damage we've wrought in that time. Can we survive another 150 years of that?

By leading the charge to embrace what's coming as soon as possible, not devising ways to give us more time and further harming our planet, Obama would build an environmental legacy without precedent, not one that's merely interesting.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.