Clean Power Plan: Barack Obama ignites war on coal to hit climate change targets

The Obama administration is toughening rules that force states to cut pollution from coal-burning power plants

Joby Warrick,Stevenmufson
Monday 03 August 2015 10:18
Barack Obama is preparing to take on the coal industry
Barack Obama is preparing to take on the coal industry

When coal was king, it fuelled the generation of more than half of America’s electricity. And US presidential hopefuls paid homage to coal, courting mine owners and miners.

Barack Obama was no exception. As a state legislator in 2004 and again as a US senator, he supported proposals for huge federal subsidies to turn coal into motor fuel and ease America’s reliance on oil imports.

All of that has changed. Today, the Obama administration takes on the coal industry with the final version of rules it has dubbed the Clean Power Plan, a complex scheme designed to reduce, on a state-by-state basis, the amount of greenhouse gases the nation’s electric power sector emits. The main target? Coal.

Today, more people are employed installing solar panels than in the coal industry. And coal’s share of electricity generation is waning, with natural gas and renewable energy taking its place.

The reason for the focus on coal is that it remains the largest US producer of greenhouse gases at a time when President Obama is striving for an agreement at the December climate summit in Paris.

A retooled version of the administration’s Clean Power Plan, first proposed a year ago, will seek to accelerate the shift to renewable energy. The new plan sets a goal of cutting carbon pollution from power plants by 32 per cent by the year 2030 compared with 2005 levels. The previous target was 30 per cent.Mr Obama has been leaning on other world leaders, one by one – from China, India, Brazil and others – to make commitments to slash emissions. But while he has made inroads abroad, he has had to fight a rearguard action at home, where Republicans in the Senate have accused him of waging a “war on coal” – and especially the jobs that go with it.

The Obama administration has trumpeted “carbon capture”, where carbon dioxide emissions are injected into old oil fields to enhance recovery and store the carbon dioxide there permanently. But carbon capture and storage is costly. Moreover, natural gas is suddenly cheap. And utilities have been turning to natural gas, especially since oil and gas companies have started using fracking techniques to tap vast natural gas resources locked in shale rock.

The formal unveiling of the plan today will kick off a major White House initiative on the climate. The effort is expected to culminate in December, with talks on a proposed international treaty curbing global carbon emissions.

Mr Obama described the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to rein in coal-burning as “the biggest, most important step we’ve ever taken to combat climate change”. He said: “Power plants are the single biggest source of the harmful carbon pollution that contributes to climate change. Think about that.”

Coal advocates liked to call the US the “Saudi Arabia of coal”. Today, however, coal may have lost its throne.

©The Washington Post

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