Obama’s war on coal

The United States is going after CO2 emissions, announcing that it will reduce them by 30 per cent by 2030. Coal-fired power plants will be the most affected. Critics of the plan accuse President Obama of damaging the country’s economy. John Dyer reports from Boston.


President Barack Obama has unveiled an ambitious new plan that could dramatically reduce United States’ carbon emissions. The plan calls for carbon emissions to decrease by 30 percent from 2005 levels in the next 16 years, the equivalent of a 25 percent cut in current CO2 levels by 2020.

“Right now, there are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe,” said Obama during his weekly radio address on Saturday. We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulphur, and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It’s not smart, it’s not safe and it doesn’t make sense.”

The plan would most directly affect the approximately 600 coal-fired power plants that now account for 40 per cent of U.S. carbon emissions, setting the stage for an epic lobbying battle between a powerful industry and environmentalists who have long criticized utility companies that resist changing to curb climate change.

More renewable energy, emissions trading

Under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, the plan would assign each state a target for reducing emissions, then allow state governments to require utilities to close coal-fired power plants or revamp them to use natural gas or technology that scrubs carbon from their emissions. It would also give utilities incentives to boost their solar and wind offerings, modernise the strained electrical grid, help customers install more efficient lights and other reforms. The plan would also let states establish so-called “cap and trade” markets like the one in California.

Energy companies, environmentalists and other members of the public will have a year to comment on the plan, a process that’s likely to kick off intense lobbying on Capitol Hill. But environmentalists are already welcoming the plan, saying it would put the US on track to meeting its obligations under a 2009 United Nations accord to reduce its greenhouse gases by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. If the US can hit its targets, then China, India and others are more likely to do the same, they said.

“These new standards send a powerful message around the world,” said President Andrew Steer of the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC.

Bypassing Congress

The EPA’s plan is the most important climate policy action taken by this government since the last climate legislation was killed by Congress four years ago. Obama had tried to enact that plan with new legislation. This time around, the President is using his authority under the 1970s-era Clean Air Act to implement his plan. That Act has been used successfully – and to wide public acclaim – to fight smog and acid rain. “Our air got cleaner, acid rain was cut dramatically, and our economy kept growing,” Obama said on Saturday.

Critics speak of billions

Opposition will be intense. Obama’s Republican rivals in Congress and their corporate backers have already savaged the plan, saying it would hamper economic growth.

“We all want clean air and clean water,” said Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican in his party’s weekly address on Saturday. “We don’t want costly regulations that make little or no difference, that are making things less affordable. Republicans want electricity and gas when you need it, at a price you can afford.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest business lobbyist in the US, released a study last week saying the proposed new regulations would close a third of the coal-fired power plants in the US, resulting in 224,000 lost jobs and higher utility costs that, together, were equivalent to 51 billion dollars a year in lost economic activity.

Environmental organisations see things quite differently, arguing that the new regulations could actually provide an economic boost. Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune noted that investment guru Warren Buffett recently announced that his utility would invest 1.9 billion dollars into wind farms in order to generate half of its electricity via wind in the next three years.


Photo credit: glennia/Creative Commons

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