Coal heats up as campaign issue for Obama
As gasoline prices continue to rise and keep the heat on President Obama’s energy policies, critics also are accusing the president of shifting support away from the coal industry, a major source of fuel and jobs in several battleground states, including Colorado, Michigan and Ohio.
Lawmakers on both sides of the partisan aisle say Obama administration environmental regulations aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissionsare poised to hit jobs and consumers harder than the Keystone XL decision at the same time the president seems to have abandoned his stated support for the coal industry and clean-coal technology.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, wrote a letter to Mr. Obama last week taking issue with the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas rule-making, naming an anti-mercury rule among several regulations that he said would cost a combined 180,000 jobs.
“You have rightly noted that oil production alone cannot solve our energy challenges,” Mr. Boehner said. “That’s why we’ve also been disturbed by regulations proposed by your administration, such as the Utility-MACT rule, that would increase costs and limit the supply of other domestic sources of energy.
“These rules, the most expensive in EPA history, stand to cost 180,000 American jobs per year and would force the premature retirement of 12 percent of America’s coal-fired energy generation,” he said.
In late February, a bipartisan group of 219 members of Congress led by Reps. Ed Whitfield, Kentucky Republican, and John Barrow, Georgia Democrat, sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget calling for a stop to the EPA’s greenhouse gas rule-making.
“Affordable, reliable electricity is critical to keeping and growing jobs in the United States, and such a standard will likely drive up energy prices and threaten domestic jobs,” they wrote. “Forcing a transition to commercially unproven technologies could send thousands of jobs overseas and raise electricity rates on families and seniors at a time when the nation can least afford it.”
In August, the EPA issued a rule aimed at reducing power-plant emissions that cross state lines. It was supposed to take effect at the beginning of this year, but the D.C. Circuit Court in late December stayed the rule while it hears challenges.
The rule attempts to reduce ozone and fine-particle pollution and assign state-by-state emissions caps to prevent the interstate transport of pollution and help downwind states meet national air quality standards. It would require power plants in 28 states to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions — both products of coal burning — that cross state lines.
Industry, labor groups and some states are fighting the rule, arguing that it should have been implemented through state law rather than federal regulations and is more stringent than necessary to maintain air quality standards.
A separate set of regulations to cut mercury pollution — another product of coal burning — is scheduled to go into effect in 2015.
GenOn Energy Inc., the third-largest U.S. independent power producer by market value, last week said it expects to shut about 13 percent of its generating capacity by May 2015, including facilities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey, because of environmental regulations.
Over the past few years, energy companies have closed or made plans to retire more than 30,000 megawatts of coal-fired generation because of the tougher regulations, as well as a surge in a natural-gas-fired generators as a cheaper alternative.
Coal accounts for more than half of the nation’s electricity generation, and 21 states depend on it for more than half of their electricity compared with their use of gas, nuclear and renewable energy sources, according to a report last year in Electric Power Monthly.
The top coal-dependent states include eight 2012 battlegrounds or must-win states for Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign: Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, New Mexico and Wisconsin.
In addition, Pennsylvania, a big coal-producing state and another key swing state, depends on coal for 48 percent of its electricity needs.
As a former senator from Illinois, where coal accounts for 47 percent of the electricity supply, Mr. Obama has been a proponent of the coal industry and a strong supporter of clean-coal technologies.
Even as Mr. Obama has embraced the idea that burning fossil fuels threatens major climate change and has backed efforts to reduce global warming, he had not supported a ban on new coal development. Instead, he backed policies that discouraged the further use of inefficient facilities while encouraging plants to be retrofitted with coal-capture and sequestration technology.
In the first three years of his presidency, Mr. Obama consistently included coal whenever speaking about the need to harness all of America’s multiple energy resources. But as environmental regulations have ramped up against the coal industrythis year, the president has not mentioned coal in remarks or speeches.
In some cases, the shift is stark. In 2010, he touted the U.S. as the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” In mid-January, he altered the statement to say the country is the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” He also omitted the word “coal” from his State of the Union address for the first time this year.
Most recently, during a speech devoted to energy policy Thursday in New Hampshire, Mr. Obama advocated “an all-of-the-above strategy that develops every single source of American energy,” but he made no mention of coal.
The White House did not respond to an inquiry about whether the omission of coal and clean-coal technology in recent speeches marks a policy shift.
Coal industry leaders closely watching the election-year energy debate have suspicions about the silence and worry that Mr. Obama has dropped his support for cleaner coal in response to pressure from environmentalists who call the very idea of “clean coal” a myth.
For example, a 2007 Sierra Club study blamed emissions from coal-fired power plants for contributing to at least 24,000 premature deaths a year in the U.S. and accounting for 36 percent of overall releases of carbon dioxide.
“Clean coal is sort of like healthy cigarettes or limited nuclear war or fat free donuts. It’s one of the great oxymorons of our time,” author Jeff Goodall wrote in his book “Big Coal, the Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future.”
In years past, Mr. Obama didn’t seem to share those beliefs. While in the Illinois legislature, he voted to use sales taxes to help reopen closed coal mines and create incentives to attract businesses that use coal. In 2001, he voted for legislation that provided $3.5 billion in loan guarantees to construct coal-fired power plants.
“I am a strong supporter, I think, of downstate coal interests and our need to prop up and improve the outputs downstate,” Mr. Obama said at the time.
During his 2004 campaign for U.S. Senate, he declared his long-term support for the industry, saying that “there’s always going to be a role for coal” in Illinois.
But when Mr. Obama got to Washington, he encountered strong resistance from environmentalists.
In 2007, Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, introduced the Coal-to-Liquids Fuel Promotion Act, and Mr. Obama signed on as a co-sponsor. The bill was supposed to help expand methods of producing cleaner coal through tax incentives and public-private partnerships, but was lambasted by environmentalists and died in committee in the Democrat-controlled chamber.
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