Who Are the Real Victims of Obama’s War on Coal?

President Barack Obama announced his Climate Action Plan last week to applause from friends and foes alike. His friends approved because Obama’s appears to be finally deliver on promises from his 2008 election campaign to get tough on climate change. His foes applauded, however, because they perceive the president to have overplayed his hand, much to the detriment of Democrats in key upcoming elections.

Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology of the Carnegie Institution for Science and co-chair of a working group tasked with assessing climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, wrote on CNN that the goals in the president’s Climate Action Plan include “cutting pollution from coal plants and aggressively pursuing clean energy alternatives.”

Declaring War On Coal.

Or, as opponents of the plan put it, President Obama has declared war on coal. And it’s not just Republicans who are skeptical of the president’s intentions toward coal, which powers a huge chunk of American electricity.

British journal The Guardian wrote that, “the coal industry… would be hit hard by carbon limits.” It quoted Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz rejecting the charge that the Obama administration has declared war on coal, saying that the Obama administration wants to see “what does it take for us to do to make coal part of a low carbon future.”

To many that sounds like trying to find a way to make chocolate fudge sundaes a part of a low-calorie diet.

Lacing Up the Gloves.

Even Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune described the plan as a battle: “The president realizes that you can’t combat climate change without a direct confrontation with the fossil fuel industry,” Brune told the Washington Post. “What has us most encouraged by the president’s speech is he is lacing up his gloves and getting ready for that fight.”

The president’s policy isn’t likely to help prospects for the Democrat Party retaining their Senate seats in West Virginia — one of the largest producers of coal-producing states — and South Dakota, which are being vacated by retiring senators.

The language in the president’s measures perceived as hostile to the proposed Keystone pipeline project certainly won’t help Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who will face a difficult challenge from the Republicans in 2014 now armed with a powerful new issue if, in fact, the Keystone project is shot down.

As The New York Times noted, “Republicans immediately went on the attack against Democratic House members in mining states, posting Web ads with a 2008 soundbite of Mr. Obama predicting regulating carbon emissions would cause electricity prices to “‘necessarily skyrocket.’”

The Democrat challenger to Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republican leader in the Senate, may be fatally kneecapped by being tied to the president’s perceived anti-coal moves. And Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia, admitted to The Times that, as far as his own re-election campaign goes, Obama’s plans “don’t help.”

So what’s in the actual measures that have Democrats looking over their shoulders as they politely, if nervously, applaud?

The centerpiece is what the Associated Press described as “the first-ever regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, as well as increased production of renewable energy on public lands and federally assisted housing,” citing groups who were briefed on the president’s remarks.

Lofty Goals, But a Bit Short on Specifics.

Coal is the real victim here.

Coal is the real victim here.

At his Georgetown University speech the president said his administration will “allow enough renewables on public lands to power 6 million homes by 2020,” the AP reported, noting that this pretty much doubles the current capacity from solar, wind, and geothermal projects on federal property. Exactly how this will be accomplished was left unstated.

Expanded production of renewable energy on low-income housing sites is another feature of the president’s plan. The plan as presented had no “detailed emission targets or specifics about how they will be put in place,” the AP said, focusing instead on launching “a process in which the Environmental Protection Agency will work with states to develop specific plans to rein in carbon emissions.”

According to The New York Times, Obama made his strongest statements yet on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, “which would carry heavy crude oil from Alberta to depots and refineries in the Midwest and on the Gulf Coast,” saying he “would not approve the 1,700-mile pipeline if it was shown that it would ‘significantly’ worsen climate change.”

Of course both opponents and proponents of the project are claiming that the president’s speech was a victory for their side, seizing on the vague language of “significantly” to beat their drums.

Ignoring Congress.

The president’s plan is to both write and enact a complicated set of rules “in just two years, to meet his pledge of reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020,” the Times reported, adding that the fact that he has to do this via executive branch action means he knows there’s no chance he could get it through the Congress that killed his cap-and-trade proposal in 2010.

He’s correct about that. Senators and representatives who still have elections left to win want no part of massive regulations which will surely have a negative impact on the economy, no matter what gaudy promises of future global environmental bliss are spun by the administration to justify them.

Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner noted that the policies being proposed were “rejected even by the last Democratic-controlled Congress” on the grounds that they “will shutter power plants, destroy good-paying American jobs, and raise electricity bills.”

Um, Aren’t Emissions Already Dropping Like a Stone?

Apart from the content of the measures, the timing is curious. Thanks largely to the boom in natural gas from fracking, American CO2 emissions are at their lowest levels since 1994 and, as President Obama himself has noted, no country since 2006 has cut emissions more. Another wave of job-destroying regulation doesn’t seem to be urgently required at this time when the economy may be getting back on its feet. The market seems to be doing a fine job reducing carbon emissions on its own.



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