It's been fewer than three months since President Obama pledged to limit pollution from coal power plants. (Remember his sweaty speech in June?) A new report suggests those rules, curbing emissions from new plants, are imminent and include a de facto prohibition on the facilities. In other words: Mitt Romney was right — and not for the first time.
The former Republican candidate for the presidency spent a lot of TV airtime arguing that the Obama administration had initiated a devastating war on the coal industry. Those ads mostly ran in Appalachian coal-producing states, naturally, like Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia. One is at right. It shows a clip of Obama saying in 2008 that building a coal power plant would bankrupt the owner. "Obama kept that promise," the announcer says, "and Pennsylvania coal paid the price."
According to a report on Wednesday from Businessweek, Obama's launched the war on a new front. As he pledged in June, his administration will release rules around allowable pollution limits for new sources of electricity this month. The draft rules — which may change, as they frequently do — apparently include a stipulation that coal-powered plants eventually capture most, if not all, of the carbon dioxide released from electricity production. "Since [carbon capture] technology is not commercially available at this time, requiring the use of this technology would function as a complete ban on the development of new coal-fired generation," the magazine quotes one attorney writing to the administration office reviewing the rules. If only we'd listened to Mitt!
Last year's election was a tricky one for President Obama. His EPA, tasked as it is with protecting the environment, tried to figure out how to balance the needs of public health, pressing legal mandates forcing it to make certain rulings, and the political pressure on a president who'd rather not have had to piss off power companies shortly before running for reelection. He walked a careful line on the issue of coal, critiquing his opponent for hypocrisy (which we'll get to below), and generally expressing support for the industry. Romney tried to suggest that the dip in coal production was Obama's fault, leveraging Obama's earnest desire that it should drop.
The thing is, Mitt was right about Obama's motives, but wrong about what Obama's accomplishments. The drop in coal consumption wasn't connected to Obama's policies, it was a function of the natural gas boom and the slowing economy. Nor were the ads accurate. The clip in the ad above comes from Obama's 2008 endorsement interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. Fast-forward to the 25 minute mark and you'll see that Obama said bankruptcy would result from the implementation of a tax on carbon emissions. At the time, Congress was considering a cap-and-trade bill aimed at creating a marketplace for carbon emissions, similar to the one that was eventually implemented in California. That is what Obama thought would bankrupt coal operators, "because they’re gonna be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted." The bill never passed the Senate, and never went into effect.
When the announcer in Romney's ad says, "Obama kept that promise" — Obama hadn't, even though he wanted to. If the Businessweek report is right, Obama will come a little closer to keeping it. Requiring carbon capture (even if phased in, as Businessweek reports is an option) makes coal production more expensive. But, as many note, coal is cheap precisely because it is allowed to have its pollution enter the atmosphere unchecked. It's as though you ran a restaurant and never had to pay to have your garbage or sewage taken care of. Yes, you could keep your burger prices low, but it's not really fair for your competition.
Nor is it great for your neighbors. Which was the point that Romney tried to make in 2003 as governor of Massachusetts, when he pointed at a coal plant and said it "kills people." Coal plants do kill people: the particles they admit cause heart attacks, the gasses they produce contribute to asthma deaths and the extreme weather events linked to climate change. Obama's push to contain coal plant pollution is meant to alleviate that damage. He can do so in part because his ads pointed out the clip at left, suggesting that Romney was a hypocrite for attacking Obama's stance on coal. Both candidates shared the same viewpoint at one point or another, maybe even during the race. Both ran against it. Mitt was right that Obama wanted to reduce coal use; he was also right that coal use should be reduced. Classic Mitt.
Sadly for both of them, the prohibition on new plants won't do a lot for the environment. As a report noted by Mother Jones indicates, nearly a third of the country's energy industry carbon emissions come from one percent of the plants — existing plants, not new ones, obviously. Obama's new rules don't deal with existing sources of production; those rules are due next June. Just in time for another group of politicians to run against Obama's War on Coal. This time, there may actually be a record to point at.
Photo: Mitt Romney, clearly in his element. (AP)