LAS VEGAS — President Obama’s plan to cut power plant emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 — made on his own through the power of executive authority — is getting the expected torrent of vilification from coal states and conservative political operatives.
As the New York Times noted, the plan “generated a torrent of criticism from industry, coal-state lawmakers from both parties and Republican leaders who called it a job-killer that would raise utility costs.”
It’s all posturing. The U.S. doesn’t have much choice but to cut back dramatically on burning coal, and we either do it now or — at a higher price — do it tomorrow. People point at auto tailpipes, but power plants are the larger climate emitter, 38 to 32 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration.
And because cheap natural gas is a much better bet in every sense, the marketplace has already cut heavily into Big Coal, which was 52 percent of U.S. energy production in 2000, but is projected to be only 32 percent by 2040. I think it will go lower than that. No, let's not debate fracking, at least not here.
Politicians are elected for short terms, and they don’t have to pay the long-term consequences of what they say and do. That’s why (in an election year especially) we’re seeing such posturing from both sides of the aisle. I’m in Nevada at the moment, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal is headlining, “Carbon Cuts May be Toxic to Dems.”
So we have the National Republican Senatorial Committee claiming that the coal action is “all part of [Obama’s] radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates skyrocket.” And the secretary of state in coal-state West Virginia, Natalie Tennant, claiming she would “stand up” to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy “and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs.”
Nick Rahall (left) and Mary Landrieu (third from left) are politicians from energy states who reflexively defend their industries to get re-elected. (Photo: EnergyTomorrow/Flickr)
Tennant is running for the Senate, so she couldn’t not say these things. Also predictable are the protests from embattled Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia, a Democrat, (pictured above) who vowed to block Obama’s action. The sad thing is that Rahall knows what he's doing doesn't make sense, but he hears the Tea Party baying at his heels.
Is it any surprise that Mary Landrieu, another endangered Congressional Democrat (also pictured above), hates the president’s plan? She said in a statement, “While it is important to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, this should not be achieved by EPA regulations." The senator has time and time again opposed the EPA acting alone to reduce carbon emissions. She’s proud of that.
But I’ll tell you who’s not opposed to regulating power plant: the American people. According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, 70 percent of Americans are in favor of federal carbon controls on power plants. And 63 percent (including 51 percent of Republicans) said they’d be willing to pay $20 a month to help save the planet. So maybe the scare tactics won’t work.
USA Today points out, in a strong editorial, that taking action on power plants puts the U.S. in a good position for dealing with the Chinese, now the world’s leading emitter. I’m fascinated by a new report out of China that it’s planning an “absolute cap” on carbon emissions that will come into force in 2016. China has talked big about this kind of thing before, but it bears watching.
Here come the knife-bearing opponents who support dirty air — the coal industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and politicians in their pockets. These skeptics will do seemingly anything to force Americans to remain tethered to old-fashioned coal, an energy source that befouls the air and creates billions of dollars in health care costs. Look for their lawsuits as well as misleading tales of how much this plan will "cost" Americans.
Obama’s plan puts weight on the states to come up with their own carbon reduction plans, which is kind of the way that Obamacare works. Some states — Texas, anyone? — are quite likely to stall and delay on any plan. But other states are already ahead of the game. Nevada, for instance, is already closing two of three coal plants by 2017. NV Energy, the largest utility, is already 80 percent natural gas (with half the climate emissions of coal).
Let’s be real. Coal isn’t a big employer anymore, even in West Virginia. Mountaintop removal mining is dominant precisely because it doesn’t need that many workers. The largest private employers in the state, in order, are Walmart, West Virginia United Health System, Charleston Area Medical Center and Kroger. A coal company is fifth.
The speeches will tell it differently, but capping carbon is both popular with the public and inevitable given the realities of climate change in 2014. Incidentally, a new offensive in the anti-Obama rhetoric is the unearthing of a 2008 campaign speech in which he talked about energy prices "skyrocketing" under a form of regulation. But it was clear, in context, that he was talking about a cap-and-trade system, not the executive action he actually took. Cheaper natural gas is actually likely to lower energy prices. Here, watch the old video yourself:
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