WASHINGTON – President Obama’s plan to curb climate change has met skepticism from Republicans who have warned that the presidential initiative threatens the viability of the coal industry through regulations that are difficult to meet with existing technology.
In a speech last month, Obama unveiled his Climate Action Plan to tackle carbon pollution in America. The move was condemned by Republican lawmakers, arguing that it relies on executive actions that require no congressional approval and would hurt the economy.
The president’s plan included a proposal, called New Source Performance Standards, to cap greenhouse emissions from new power plants.
A bipartisan group of 22 lawmakers sent a letter to Obama last week in opposition to the administration’s intentions to regulate greenhouse gases, particularly those generated by coal-fired power plants, through new regulations.
“We and others have often criticized a ‘War on Coal’ waged by this White House and these accusations were met with firm denial by Administration officials and environmentalist allies,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, given the cumulative impact of continued mining permit delays, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, and your annual budgets’ repeated proposed cuts to the Department of Energy’s fossil energy research and development programs, it is hard to come to any conclusion other than that your Administration is systematically trying to eliminate the use of carbon fuels, particularly coal.”
The House passed legislation on Thursday that is part of two GOP initiatives – to end the “war on coal” and to reduce federal regulations on businesses.
The bill would give states greater authority to regulate coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants. The legislation would stop the EPA’s effort to designate coal ash as a hazardous material. It would also give the federal government authority to provide minimum standards for the management of coal ash, but leave it to the states to develop permit programs.
Coal ash is a coal combustion byproduct that may pose environmental risks when put in landfills, but is often recycled safely to use in various products such as concrete, cement, and roofing materials. In 2010, the EPA proposed a rule that would treat coal ash in landfills and other storage areas as hazardous material – a category that comes with strict storage requirements.
The EPA has yet to release a final coal ash rule, but plans to use new technical data to finalize it.
In a statement after the vote, the White House said it hopes to work with Congress on legislation setting standards for managing coal ash while encouraging the beneficial uses of the material. The White House did not issue a veto threat, as it often does with GOP environmental bills, leaving open the possibility of compromise as the bill moves to the Senate.
Coal currently generates approximately 40 percent of U.S. electricity, down from just under 50 percent in recent years. Coal’s decline comes as natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and wind and solar energy have risen in their share of U.S. electricity consumption.
Despite the recent decline in coal use, the Energy Information Administration pointed out in its Annual Energy Outlook 2013 that coal is projected to remain the largest energy source for electricity generation through 2040.
The Obama administration strongly supports the development of “clean” coal technologies, including carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS is a relatively new, expensive and unproven technology that captures carbon dioxide before it exits the smokestack, transforms into a solid, and then buries it permanently underground.
At a hearing examining coal-related technologies, Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), energy subcommittee chairman, said on Thursday that the new EPA power plant regulations prohibit new coal plants from being built and impose massive costs on existing plants. For instance, Lummis noted, 288 coal units in 32 states have cited current and pending regulations as a factor contributing to their expected closure.
“Rarely, however, has such a beneficial, life-improving resource upon which society depends been under such hostile attack,” Lummis said. “Adding injury to insult, this attack is being led by our own president.”
Before the release of Obama’s climate plan, the EPA had already taken steps to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from plants. In 2012, the EPA proposed a new rule that would limit emissions of carbon dioxide to no more than 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour of production from new fossil-fuel power plants.
Recently built power plants fired by natural gas already easily meet the new standards, so the rule presents little obstacle for these plants. But coal-fired plants face a far greater challenge, since no easily accessible technology can bring their emissions under the limit. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, new coal-fired plants would only be able to meet the standards by installing carbon capture and CCS technology.
“EPA is just one agency leading the war on coal,” Lummis said. The Wyoming representative mentioned that the House Natural Resources Committee discussed the Department of Interior’s regulations that aim to restrict coal-mining activities.
In his speech last month, the president called for an end to public financing of new coal plants overseas unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies.
“Incredibly, the president is even attempting to limit the global use of coal by restricting international aid for it in developing countries, thus limiting access to the primary means through which those countries’ citizens escape poverty,” Lummis said.
Other Republicans at the hearing voiced concern about the administration’s persistent “war on coal” and its implications for the nation’s chances to achieve energy independence.
“I’m very excited about coal as an abundant resource here in the U.S. because it gives us the opportunity to have energy independence and releases us from some of these foreign entanglements, so I’m very troubled by what it looks like the administration’s bias against coal,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said.
Massie asked Christopher Smith, DOE’s assistant secretary for fossil energy, if he could provide details about how much of climate change happens because of human activity.
“What I can say without getting into a detailed scientific discussion about climate change, is that we do believe that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are an important component of global warming and it is something we do have to comprehensively address,” Smith replied.
Smith then said he would not go through peer-reviewed scientific studies to offer an explanation, but stated that his department would gladly provide the representative’s office with more information.
“That’s an opinion. Let’s take into the realm of facts,” Massie retorted. “What percent would you apply to anthropogenic causes? Without facts all you have is an opinion.”