Obama’s emissions plan won’t cut it

June 5, 2014

Why won't the Environment Protection Agency put teeth in its new emissions rules?

THE CLIMATE crisis got some long-awaited attention from the Obama administration on June 2, when the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) released its plan to limit carbon pollution at power plants.

But while conservatives and the energy industry loudly denounced them, the administration's actual proposals--which among other things rely on states to decide how to meet new goals for lowering carbon emissions--aren't even close to what's necessary to start reversing the effects of burning fossil fuels.

"This is like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose--we're glad the president has finally turned the water on, but it's just not enough to get the job done," said Kevin Bundy of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute. Several environmental groups also criticized the plan as inadequate, including 350.org, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

That Obama's EPA did anything at all--after five and a half long years of inaction from the man who promised to make the environment a priority when he campaigned to become president--is because of increasing pressure from a sea change in public opinion about climate change and the devastating ecological crisis that is unfolding. An April poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication showed that those surveyed supported strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired plants--"even if the cost of electricity to consumers and companies increases"--by a nearly a 2-to-1 margin.

Smokestacks belch pollution at a huge power plant
Smokestacks belch pollution at a huge power plant (Zhou Mingjia)

The wider public concern about climate change has never been more urgent. But Barack Obama's emissions plan is nowhere close to what's needed--neither to meet the expectations of people who believed Obama would honor his campaign promises, nor to make significant progress against greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, Obama is content to largely leave the energy industry bosses the room to decide.

THE AIM of the administration's 645-page plan is to cut carbon pollution from power plants--with a particular emphasis on the country's 600 coal-fired plants--by 30 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030. This goal is supposed to make good on its promise at a 2010 United Nations climate conference.

But is that enough of a reduction? And is 2030 fast enough?

In May, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released its third National Climate Assessment and found further signs of the devastation that climate change is already causing. For instance:

Sea levels have risen by eight inches since 1880, and it's estimated they will rise one to four feet by 2100.

Flooding from climate change could cost as much as $325 billion by 2100, including more than $130 billion in Florida alone.

2001 to 2012 was warmer in every part of the country than any previous decade for a century.

"Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present," concluded the scientists who authored the report. But despite the immediacy of its own study, the latest proposal for emissions cuts goes slow.

"This plan is all about flexibility," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. The 50 states will all have their own individual targets to meet, and they will be able to decide how meet them by choosing from a menu of some 50 options. So, for instance, state governments can close a coal plant and open a solar or wind facility--or they can choose the cap-and-trade system.

Carbon trading leaves decisions about how to limit carbon emissions up to the corporate polluters themselves--whose solutions unsurprisingly prioritize their bottom line. The practice of offsetting, for example, allows power plant operators to avoid reducing their own emissions if they can pay a forester or farmer to reduce their emissions instead.

The outcome: As Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter and Institute for Policy Studies Climate Policy Program Director Janet Redman wrote, "Power plants keep polluting, and the families living in their shadow continue to breathe toxic emissions. Communities near the polluters don't see any benefits from the supposed reduction in pollution taking place elsewhere."

So while Obama is claiming that his administration is finally getting tough on polluters, the plan will give state governments the leeway to accommodate the coal industry.

NONE OF this stopped Republicans from going on the offensive to condemn Obama's supposed "war on coal." "While the president is taking a victory lap," said Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, " I hope he will take a moment to explain to middle-class families in Virginia the reality of his proposal--an increase in their home electricity bills."

Mostly, though, the Republicans complained that the EPA proposal is a "job-killer." Several Republican governors are expected to sue, and some say they'll refuse to submit compliance plans, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry has done with EPA rules he hasn't liked in the past.

But this is an old dance.

In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama took heat from Republicans when he made even the most modest stand against fossil fuel use. Back then, candidate Obama declared, "So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it's just that it will bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted." Republicans declared that this was an attack on mining jobs rather than a proposal to slow global warming. When he took office, any plans to curb carbon emissions died on the vine.

It was a replay when the 2012 election rolled around--Republicans once again warned about Obama's "war on coal," but after the voting, there wasn't even a skirmish, until now.

The sound bites from opponents of emissions reductions haven't changed much today--and they aren't even confined to the Republicans. In some states where the coal industry is strong, Democrats are also taking on the EPA plan. Like Kentucky--a state where 90 percent of energy comes from coal--where Alison Lundergan Grimes is trying to unseat Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell confidently set the standard for anti-Obama, anti-regulation rhetoric: "The president wants Americans to believe that his national energy tax can somehow heal the planet and regulate the oceans. Because the point of this whole exercise is sadly obvious: it's not really about science or global warming at all, it's about making privileged elitists--elitists who may not feel the pinch of a higher utility bill or the pain of a lost job--feel like they 'did something.'"

Notice how the most powerful Republican in the U.S. Senate made the right of polluters to pollute into the act of an underdog against the elite?

But Democratic contender Grimes was right there with McConnell opposing the Obama plan. When McConnell announced his "Coal Country Protection Action," which would block pollution regulations on existing coal power plants, she criticized McConnell's proposal because it "didn't go far enough."

The truth is that coal production has remained stable under Obama, his "war" on coal notwithstanding. There has been a loss of coal jobs in Kentucky and West Virginia, but this is the result of a shift to large-scale strip mining or mountaintop removal mining that was underway before Obama took office.

The bickering between the candidates in Kentucky underscores the cynical way both parties see the issue--as some kind of a bargaining chip, regardless of the ongoing damage being done to the environment. If either party really cared about jobs like they claim to, they would do something about the safety of those workers when they're in the mines. Instead, they look the other way, as the coal industry flouts regulations and endangers its workers.

As Bob Kincaid, an West Virginia activist against mountain-top removal, wrote:

There's no Black Lung in Mitch McConnell's fantasy world; no slate falls, no cave-ins, no Upper Big Branch disaster, nothing. What's more, there are no birth defects, no cancers, no heart disease afflicting people who live near Mountaintop Removal sites, despite the nearly two dozen scientific reports that say otherwise...

As I watched the speech last night, I could not help thinking about my grandfather, gasping for his last breath. Thousands of people in Appalachia have a memory similar to mine. McConnell apparently has no such memory; has never watched a man whose lungs have been ruined by coal drown on dry land; has never held the hand of a loved one as she breathes her last after breathing Mountaintop Removal poison for years; has never watched a newborn struggle for his first breath of life because his mama carried him to term in a place where the air is choked with Mountaintop Removal's silica dust.

If the politicians were honest, they would call this what it is: protecting the coal industry's profits at the expense of workers and the planet.

The Obama administration hopes its too-little-too-late plan will convince people who care about climate change to support the Democrats in the 2014 elections, even as Obama may well approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline after the midterm elections.

But as five and a half long years of nothing has proven, the Democrats won't follow through on their promises to protect the environment--far from it. Environmental activists will have to keep building on the momentum that has been gathering for real action to stop climate change--the chief reason why Obama is finally proposing anything at all--and demand more than a garden hose against a planetary wildfire.

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