Back in 2008, Barack Obama was the United States Senator for Illinois and Democratic nominee to become president. In the course of laying out his view for America and what he could do for it, he gave an interview to the San Francisco Chronicle in which he broached the topic of coal power and the challenges it would face.
With climate change concern and the need to curb carbon emissions growing, Obama dismissed the idea of coal becoming extinct, but was adamant that older, inefficient and dirty plants would just not be economically feasible in the years to come. "So what we have to do then is we have to figure out how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon. And how can we sequester that carbon and capture it? If we can’t, then we’re going to still be working on alternatives."
Obama went on to suggest that unless the carbon polluting element of coal power plants, particularly old inefficient ones, could be brought under some degree of control, they would not survive. "So if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted."
War on carbon makes casualty of coal
Today, more than six years after taking up residence in the White House, President Obama is seeking to secure that reality, with the Environmental Protection Agency announcing new rules that would see the carbon emissions from power plants cut to 30% below 1990 levels by 2030. Under the rules, first announced in June 2014, each state will be given an individual target relating to current emissions and capabilities and be given a range of options to meet it, from switching from coal to cleaner power sources to improving energy efficiency and establishing cap-and-trade markets.
For the president, his supporters and environmental campaigners, the measures are a war on carbon – essentially drawing a line in the sand on what level of emissions is acceptable in the modern developed world. However, for his opponents, including Republicans and politicians from states heavily reliant on the coal industry, it is a war on coal.
US coal has been hit particularly hard, with a flood of shale gas supplies knocking it off its perch.
To incentivise further decarbonisation, the administration has also proposed the creation of a Clean Power State Initiative Fund that would make $4bn in funding available over ten years to help states go beyond their given target. Included within Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, the package would see taxpayer money diverted to states to enable them to move from carbon-intensive power sources to clean sources. Controlled by the EPA and funded through its budget, the fund is tightly tied to the new rules and their implementation across the US.
Shortly before announcing his plans to cut power station emissions during one of his weekly radio addresses to the nation, Obama highlighted the issue: "Right now, there are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None. They can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It’s not smart, it’s not safe, and it doesn’t make sense."
Estimates on the impact of the rules suggest that 1,600 power plants could be affected, most likely closed or modified to emit less, with about 600 coal plants first and foremost in the firing line.
Coal state politicians campaign against EPA rules
Turning his words against him, Obama’s opponents have held up his 2008 interview as evidence of an ambition to abolish the coal industry. Cutting out the wider context in which it was used, Obama, they claim, is simply seeking to bankrupt coal.
Angered at the impact the rules would have on coal-reliant states like Kentucky, Pennsylvania and even Obama’s own state of Illinois, the campaign against the EPA rules is attempting to fight back against the original proposals and delay the funding package to help states transition until it can be dismissed.
First, the largest privately-owned coal mining company Murray Energy filed suit against the EPA in July, before twelve coal-reliant states followed shortly after. Filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, the states of Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming are all seeking to overturn the EPA rules on the grounds that carbon emissions are regulated under a separate part of the Clean Air Act and are beyond the control of the EPA.
In response, a spokeswoman for the EPA said: "The Clean Power Plan proposal provides each state with enormous flexibility in determining how to meet its pollution reduction goals and does not mandate the retirement of any coal plants."
A key issue of the debate centres on whether or not carbon capture and storage technology is feasible, with Democrats and the EPA pointing to it as an opportunity for the coal industry to survive and the Republicans claiming that it is not sufficiently developed to provide coal companies with any feasible way forward should the rules be passed.
With a final decision from the Supreme Court expected at some point in June this year, those opposed to the plans are wasting no time exploring other options to derail the EPA rules. Leading the charge, Senator for Kentucky and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has followed up the action in the courts with attempts to destroy state-level support for the action. In a letter to all 50 governors, he called on them to refuse to submit state implementation plans. "They really can’t defeat this through federal legislation and McConnell is trying to get the governors to do it for him," said David Doniger, climate and clean air program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Adding extra pressure to the passage of the bill, the House of Representatives’ Energy and Power Subcommittee criticised the Obama-era EPA for stepping beyond its boundaries when EPA administrator Gina McCarthy appeared before it. "The problem is that the Obama EPA has strayed well beyond its legitimate functions and has embarked on an expansive and expensive global warming regulatory agenda that is on shaky legal ground and is a bad policy for the country," said committee chairman Ed Whitfield, U.S Representative for Kentucky.
No sign of either camp letting up
Fossil Free, a project of 350.org has since grown exponentially.
The opposition campaign has also mooted the possibility of calling for a resolution of disapproval to disrupt the bill. However, with the president able to veto any such call, it is seen as a last resort. Like many of the bills that either side have sought to pass in recent years, the EPA rules are at risk of being at the centre of a stand-off between a Democratic president and a Republican Senate.
From his first presidential campaign through his time in the White House, Obama has been consistent in highlighting the need to reduce emissions and the critical contribution that must be made through cleaning power stations. Despite the ongoing dispute between his administration and congress, he continues to stand firm – he recently announced that the US would commit to cutting carbon pollution by up to 28% by 2025 in a pledge designed to set an example ahead of the UN climate conference in Paris in December this year.
The coal states and the Republican-dominated Congress have pledged to fight each action taken by Obama that it deems will damage the US coal industry, but with global acceptance that decarbonisation is required and demand for coal dropping, particularly in the vital export market of China, it may well prove to be economic reality and not political rhetoric that sees the EPA rules pass through.