When Principle and Politics Collide: Obama’s New Coal Emissions Standards

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (Getty Images)

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (Getty Images)

By Don Rose

I wonder how much thought the White House gave to the political implications of releasing the Environmental Protections Agency’s new coal emissions standards at this time—five months before the mid-term elections?

I’m not concerned about the usual rhetorical attacks from climate-change deniers or even lambasting from the coal industry and its economic supporters.  It’s a given that almost anything Obama proposes on the environment—call it global warming, climate change or even clean air—will draw cannon fire from across the aisle. Note that he still hasn’t come out one way or another on the Keystone pipeline, which embattled Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., LA.) and certain other Dems pray he will approve.

The issue here is not whether the EPA rulings are a good thing for the country. Environmentalists from the sciences to nongovernmental organizations to the media have all praised the program to the skies, calling it one of the most historic moves any president has ever made. It doesn’t take a great scientific mind to understand that the carbons emitted from burning coal are damned unhealthy to everyone, regardless of whether you think climate change is manmade or not. (Yet we also continue to hear about something called “clean coal,” which for all practical purposes is a myth.)

In brief, the EPA plan seeks to reduce the amount of carbon emitted from coal-burning electric power plants by 30 percent by 2030. It notes “Power plants account for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. While there are limits in place for the level of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particle pollution that power plants can emit, there are currently no national limits on carbon pollution levels.”

The EPA does not jam the changes down the states’ throats.  It gives each time to plan a phase-out based on current coal consumption. States in the northeast that have already weaned themselves off of coal have had no economic problems, despite dire forecasts from the industry. Nevertheless, the Right is massively attacking Obama’s “war on coal.”

Now here’s where the dangerous politics comes in. The Democrats’ hold on the senate is precarious.  One big hope is that their candidate, Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes, has an even or better chance to unseat GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.  However, for Grimes to win she must do well in her state’s highly unionized coal country. The state’s electric power is more than 90 percent dependent on coal, though it is already working seriously on reducing that dependency.

Small wonder that Grimes—and other coal-country candidates—are denouncing the Obama-EPA plan. It’s impossible to imagine her supporting the plan and still winning.  Even so, it’s something between a stumbling block and a roadblock for Grimes, whose victory might determine whether Obama still has a Democratic senate.

So was Obama’s release of the plan now, rather than November, a heroic act of political courage or self-destructive idiocy?

The environmentalist in me says “hero”; the crass politician says “damfool.”

A long-time political strategist (now retired), Don Rose is part of the conscience of Chicago and (we’re honored to say) an occasional contributor to The Contrary Perspective.

One thought on “When Principle and Politics Collide: Obama’s New Coal Emissions Standards

  1. Even in politics, there comes a time to either “fish or cut bait.” That time is upon us with climate change. I regularly monitor the technical science, and believe the situation is even worse than what the IPCC contends (their reports cautiously lean towards conservative assessments). The amount of warming already locked into Earth’s climate equates to catastrophic consequences for human civilization – as it currently exists – in the coming decades. The biosphere is now experiencing a great “sixth extinction” as author Elizabeth Kolbert described it.

    The Obama Administration’s new EPA regulations on carbon emissions will have only a negligible effect on actually reducing greenhouse gases; however, it could have a substantial symbolic effect on public opinion and the willingness of world leaders to take corrective action. These are the biggest obstacles to mitigating the problem.

    The Democratic Party’s electoral challenge in 2014 and beyond rests not upon acquiescing to fossil fuel interests, but to increasing voter turnout by fully embracing economic populism. Unfortunately, it has been reluctant to do so since that would likely offend many of its big financial supporters who represent the status quo establishment. The American people are desperate for leadership, but they are not seeing it anywhere in Washington, D.C.

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