In the middle of a week marked by weird weather, the EPA quietly published one of the first significant proposals to substantially regulate coal consumption. Quietly for now, anyway. Warming reality notwithstanding, we're entering a ferocious new era of Washington climate brawls.
The EPA's process for creating a new rule is the opposite of that. It's typically slow, deliberative. A proposal is published, feedback is submitted, the rule is refined — eventually, it becomes a mandate. The proposed new rule, published on Wednesday, really just hit the starting line, a little less than seven months after President Obama gave a dramatic, sweat-soaked speech pledging new action on climate change.
What the rule would do is tackle a subset of a subset of greenhouse gas production, regulating the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted at a new coal power plant. It would require, if enacted, that any new facilities being built incorporate "carbon-capture" technology — a system that would prevent most of the carbon dioxide that's produced from burning coal from escaping into the air. (In an interesting reversal, Republicans, who once hailed carbon capture as a climate change solution, now point out that such systems are too immature to be implemented.)
It's urgently needed. Thanks to a century-plus during which not such constraints on coal burning existed, carbon dioxide (often just called carbon) is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. In 2011, one-third of all of the greenhouse gas produced in the U.S. came from electricity production. To slow global warming, you have to slow carbon dioxide emission at power plants. It's a simple calculus.
What the new rule doesn't do, though, is regulate emissions at existing plants, the sites that contribute nearly all of our current carbon pollution. A rule regulating those facilities is coming at some point, having become inevitable once the Supreme Court told the Bush administration in 2007 that delays in addressing the issue were unacceptable. In his June speech, Obama promised that it would be handled by the end of his second term. And that's the fight that looms.
As the 2007 to 2014 gap illustrates, Obama hasn't exactly moved quickly on the issue of coal-burning himself. That's largely because the issue is extremely touchy politically. As the 2012 campaign approached, Mitt Romney increasingly appealed to Appalachian states (most importantly, Ohio) by critiquing the president's then-non-existent "war on coal." Obama wants to end coal use, the argument went, but Obama's regulation-light first term blunted the line pretty effectively. It didn't resonate in Ohio, but certainly contributed to Obama's poor showing in West Virginia (among other factors). The state's relatively small but culturally significant coal industry holds enormous sway in its consciousness.
In his second inaugural speech last January, Obama demanded that Congress, at last, come up with legislation to curb coal use, pledging to finally launch that war on coal if nothing was done. Congress did nothing. Nor will it. In his rambling climate-change-is-fake-because-it's-cold speech from the Senate floor earlier this week, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe went out of his way to bash cap-and-trade, a system of carbon regulation that died on Capitol Hill two Congresses ago. It's so dead that no serious consideration of it has been made since.
Which leaves Obama in a particularly tricky position. One of the prominent new lines of attack against his presidency is his reliance on regulatory action to address problems he considers urgent: gun control, the environment at large, health care where possible. In December, that independence contributed to Republican charges that Obama was usurping the Constitution, leading to an "I don't want to say the word 'impeachment,' but"-style hearing. As the EPA's proposed rule moves forward and receives feedback, that argument will accelerate. House Republicans have already pledged that one of their first priorities in 2014 will be reining in the EPA, focusing on smaller-scale rules on waste disposal and hazardous substances. When the coal-plant rule gets closer, it will offer a new point of tension between the White House and Republicans — and as discussion over the much, much more contentious issue of existing plants begins, the fight will become severe.
The issue of the threat to coal jobs will put a human face on the dispute. From The Hill's report on the new EPA proposal:
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) blasted the EPA for publishing the regulation on the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty.
"The EPA just announced another regulation that will increase poverty in coal country," Barrasso said in a statement on Wednesday.
Data from EIA.gov
It's not quite as simple as "regulate coal, jobs go away." America still exports a vast amount of coal to other countries, including a mature infrastructure that moves coal from Barrasso's Wyoming to the West Coast to Asia. But as the chart at right shows, the coal industry's problems go far beyond new environmental regulations. While overall production has stayed fairly consistent for some time — 2008 saw a high in production that stumbled in the recession — production per man-hour has dropped steeply since 2000. Seams of quality coal found near the surface of the Earth aren't as abundant as they once were. The constraints of availability necessarily means that fossil fuel production will become more costly over time, even without any government regulation. But that's a tough argument to make when Congressional Republicans (who would like to be reelected) have a ready foil in a president who thinks we burn too much coal.
Meanwhile, the world gets weirder: a polar vortex that the White House, at least, suggests may be climate change-linked, 120-plus degrees in Australia. The debate on climate change at large is settled, as is the proper policy solution. But in America, with that first little step on a partial carbon regulation, the fight is about to get underway.