Obama Quietly Undercutting Climate Legacy With Foreign Fossil Fuel Investments: Investigation

A coal-fired power plant near Becker, Minnesota. (Photo: Tony Webster/flickr/cc)

Obama Quietly Undercutting Climate Legacy With Foreign Fossil Fuel Investments: Investigation

Under Obama, Ex-Im Bank has gotten three times more financing than during George W. Bush's terms

President Barack Obama's climate credentials are being undermined by a federal agency in his administration that is putting billions of taxpayer dollars into foreign fossil fuel projects.

So finds a Columbia School of Journalism and Guardian investigation published Wednesday which looks at the U.S. Export-Import Bank, or Ex-Im Bank, which is tasked with promoting U.S. exports.

Based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, their investigation found: "Since January 2009, the U.S. Export-Import Bank has signed almost $34bn worth of low-interest loans and guarantees to companies and foreign governments to build, expand, and promote fossil fuel projects abroad."

That total is roughly "three times more financing than the taxpayer-backed bank provided during George W. Bush's two terms, and almost twice the amount financed with loans and guarantees under the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton--combined"

The biggest investment was almost $5bn in 2012 to Dow Chemical and Saudi Aramco for a power boiler and heat exchange manufacturing for a new petrochemical plant in the kingdom.

The financing hit a peak of $10bn in 2013. In that year, as climate advocacy group Friends of the Earth (FOE) has noted, Obama "announced an end to public financing for coal plants abroad, except in limited circumstances."

The new reporting continues:

Our investigation shows the president's domestic climate policies, including the 1.1bn ton carbon reduction promised with his new vehicle engine efficiency standards and the 2.5bn ton carbon savings the pending clean power plan is estimated to make, will largely be erased by the bank's overseas emissions.

The climate impact of greenhouse gas emissions is the same, the reporting notes, whether they are spewed out from somewhere in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. The investigation adds:

Using information from the Energy Information Administration, if the Clean Power Plan were enacted this year, over the next 15 years it would reduce U.S. carbon emissions by about 2.5bn tons. That is nearly the same number that the Ex-Im Bank's overseas fossil fuel projects will produce over 15 years, assuming they were all running at full capacity.

It's not the first time the bank has come under fire for fueling climate change.

Environment advocacy group Pacific Environment, for example, said in 2012 that "[t]he Obama Administration is supporting skyrocketing export subsidies for dirty fossil fuels" via the bank. "Ex-Im Bank's worsening fossil fuel binge makes a mockery out of the U.S. Government's stated efforts to curb climate change and President Obama's pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies," said Doug Norlen, the group's policy director, at the time.

ThinkProgress also wrote last year that

FOE has been fighting against Ex-Im's practices since 2002, when the group issued a lawsuit against the bank over its support of natural gas projects. The group has been trying to make sure the bank stops financing fossil fuel projects that can be harmful to the environment and local people, and instead finance renewable energy projects, such as solar and wind. FOE is also pushing for the Ex-Im Bank to have a high level of transparency with properly enforced regulations."

The Ex-Im Bank's future, however, is uncertain. Politicowrites that it "has been operating at less than full capacity for nearly a year and a half." The New York Timesreports: "In December, the bank's bipartisan supporters in Congress secured the agency's reopening," but Senate Banking Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) "bottled up President Obama's nomination of a third member for the bank's five-person board. Only the board can approve transactions of more than $10 million; without a quorum of three it cannot," the Times wrote.

For his part, President-elect Donald Trump said last year, "I'd be against it" and called the bank "a lot of excess baggage."

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