The very same voters who helped put Barack Obama in the White House increasingly are turning against the president’s climate change agenda, with influential black and Hispanic leaders warning that stiff regulations to limit carbon emissions will have a devastating effect on the poor and will further stifle economic opportunity for minorities.
Some of Mr. Obama’s most ardent supporters say they simply cannot go along with the administration’s increasingly ambitious program to combat global warming. They argue that, contrary to the Environmental Protection Agency’s claims, the carbon regulations will drive up utility bills for poor households and will stunt economic growth in low-income areas.
The mounting wave of criticism shows that for many minority leaders who backed the president’s election bids and support him on a host of other issues, Mr. Obama’s environmental agenda runs counter to their chief concern: protecting the poor and ensuring that they can afford to keep their lights on.
“Cosmetically, it sounds good to say, ‘We want to clean up the environment.’ That’s fine. But you’re talking about eliminating one problem and creating another. We’re talking about astronomical increases in utility bills. You’ve got people now who need to make a decision: Do I put gas in my car? Go to church? Buy my medicine?” said Charles Steele Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a self-described Obama supporter.
“I think he’s an outstanding individual, but the EPA is wrong on this issue. I want to be on the right side,” he said. “I have to stand for what is right for poor people. Poor people don’t have lobbies. That’s what people need to understand.”
Mr. Obama aims to lead the world to a historic climate change agreement this year as the EPA finalizes its Clean Power Plan, an unprecedented set of regulations intended to greatly reduce emissions from power plants.
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The final proposal, scheduled to be released this summer, is expected to call for a 30 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030. The bulk of that reduction would come from coal-fired power plants.
Administration officials and environmental supporters argue that the power plant move — in conjunction with other steps such as increasing auto fuel efficiency — will decrease emissions, improve public health and spur economic growth through innovation and will drive investment into burgeoning industries such as the wind and solar power sectors.
Critics say the EPA plan will lead to job losses, higher electric bills, the closure of coal plants and an economic ripple effect that may hit minority communities hardest of all.
In addition to Mr. Steele, other powerful black and Hispanic leaders are pressing the EPA to change course.
“It is critical that the regulations coming out of Washington protect small business owners, in all communities, from increased electricity costs. If monthly energy bills get too high, business owners are forced to trim their spending in other areas, which too often includes payroll,” the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said in public comments submitted to the EPA. “We urge EPA to re-examine the impacts and implementation of its Clean Power Plan proposal, which we believe is currently too inflexible, costly and contains many unknown impacts.”
The National Black Chamber of Commerce expressed similar concerns, telling the EPA in a written statement that the carbon rules will “ultimately force African-American business owners to eliminate good-paying jobs and become more financially unstable as energy costs rise.”
The EPA also is contending with fierce accusations of misconduct and incompetence. Lawmakers say the agency has turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and other misdeeds.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee grilled administration officials Thursday for apparently promoting Peter Jutro to lead the EPA’s office of homeland security despite numerous accusations of sexual harassment. An EPA inspector general’s report also found that agency employees were kept on the payroll after they were caught watching pornography at work.
“We’ve seen numerous examples of fraud, unprofessional behavior, cronyism and outright theft at the EPA,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and committee chairman. “It is well past time for someone to be held accountable for these management failings.”
An EPA representative shot back against charges that sexual harassment was ignored, saying the agency “does not tolerate harassment in the workplace and finds such conduct completely unacceptable.”
The EPA also dismisses concerns that its Clean Power Plan will harm minority communities. The agency insists the carbon regulations will benefit low-income areas specifically.
“There is strong scientific evidence that minority and low-income communities are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and can be disproportionately harmed by pollution from industry and transportation. Reducing carbon and other air pollution nationally will have important benefits to these vulnerable groups and communities,” the agency said in a statement.
The public health and climate benefits of the plan could total as much as $93 billion per year by 2030, the statement added.
Other data paint a much different picture.
A report from the center-right American Action Forum says the EPA plan could cause more than 90 coal-fired power plants to shut down.
The fallout from those closures could eliminate as many as 296,000 jobs, the survey says.
Other data show that blacks and Hispanics are much more concerned about the economic consequences of the president’s policies than they are about climate change itself.
More than 75 percent of black and Hispanic voters say they worry about rising energy costs, according to a poll released in October by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a leading critic of Mr. Obama’s climate agenda.
The survey also said that just 3 percent of black voters and 7 percent of Hispanic voters think climate change is the issue that impacts their communities most.
About 60 percent of black and Hispanic voters say the administration should focus on keeping energy prices low rather than pursuing climate regulations, according to the poll.