The Magazine

A War on Coal

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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On September 20, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed strict new limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Energy industry critics, along with a number of influential unions, were quick to decry them. The regulations would limit carbon emissions for new coal plants to 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour. The technology to meet this standard, which involves pumping carbon dioxide deep underground, is so expensive that the coal industry says it will effectively prevent new coal plants from being built. Nonetheless, in a puffy New York Times profile earlier this summer​—​“After Delayed Vote, EPA Gains a Tough Leader to Tackle Climate Change”​—​EPA secretary Gina McCarthy insisted that “we don’t have a war on coal.” 

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In Washington, there’s a very porous line between denying and lying. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that 175 coal plants, representing 8.5 percent of all of the electricity produced by coal, will close by 2016. According to the industry group the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, more than 280 coal plants are slated to close, and EPA regulations are largely to blame. Since coal power plants generate over 40 percent of the nation’s electricity, these closures are bound to result in significantly higher electricity bills. They also raise troubling questions about our ability to reliably supply power in much of the country. 

So how can the EPA justify regulations that amount to a regressive tax on poor people and reduce desperately needed energy production? McCarthy told the Times she wouldn’t have accepted the job at the helm of the EPA if she hadn’t been confident the president was serious about addressing climate change: “It’s an issue I’ve worked on for so many years, and it just can’t wait.” 

Actually, it appears that climate change is already on indefinite hold. “Since just before the start of the 21st century, the Earth’s average global surface temperature has failed to rise despite soaring levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases and years of dire warnings from environmental advocates,” reported the Los Angeles Times last week. “Now, as scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gather in Sweden this week to approve portions of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, they are finding themselves pressured to explain this glaring discrepancy.” Had the EPA gotten its way and begun regulating carbon emissions long ago, it would no doubt be pointing to this development and claiming credit for saving the world from environmental calamity. 

The real reason behind the EPA’s move is to circumvent Congress, which four years ago failed to pass a law requiring cap and trade limits on carbon emissions. The New York Times has giddily pointed out that the EPA’s new rules could give energy producers no choice but to create their own regional cap and trade systems to meet the strict standard. The Times also hails the EPA rules for creating a “push for renewable energy and energy efficiency in states that so far have embraced neither.” 

The push for energy derived from renewable sources has been one of the Obama administration’s most consistent​—​and consistently ill-advised​—​efforts. The Department of Energy recently announced that it was revitalizing its green energy loan guarantee program, the very same program responsible for the Solyndra debacle and dozens of inspector general investigations into corruption. (More quietly, the Energy Department also revealed earlier this month that a failed renewable energy loan to the Michigan company Vehicle Production Group would cost taxpayers $42 million.) But the Energy Information Administration optimistically estimates renewable sources will meet 16 percent of the country’s energy needs by 2035. If you get rid of coal today, renewable sources won’t even come close to filling the vacuum. 

GOP leaders have already vowed to fight the regulations on coal plants tooth-and-nail, as they should. They would also be wise to hamstring the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate in Ohio and Virginia by pointing out early and often that his or her party is killing coal jobs. Representative Devin Nunes of California has already proposed legislation, A Roadmap for America’s Energy Future, that would be a good starting point for a comprehensive GOP energy plan. In a nutshell, it would expand domestic energy production and ensure that subsidies for renewables are awarded on merit rather than cronyism or bureaucratic whim. But today’s GOP has a dismal track record when it comes to advancing a positive agenda, necessary though this is for electoral success. Voters can see that the certain result of Democratic energy policy is to produce less energy, economic consequences be damned. If shown an alternative strategy​—​one aimed at producing more energy, not less energy​—​the voters will choose more. 

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