Obama’s ‘War on Coal’ Drives GOP to Take Up Arms

Republican senators take aim at landmark air pollution rules they say are killing American jobs.

An aerial view of a coal power plant. The GOP wants to axe landmark air pollution regulations they say will strangle the coal industry. (Photo: Harrison Shull/Getty Images) 

Jun 15, 2012
writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

In just days, the Senate is expected to vote on whether to overturn the EPA's landmark ruling from last December requiring coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions and other air toxins.

Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., has spearheaded the push to throw out the regulations, calling them a regulatory nightmare and claiming they will drive up energy prices and kill jobs.

For its part, the EPA asserts that the new standards are expected to prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma per year.

But for Inhofe and like-minded Republicans, the new regulations are yet another example of EPA overreach, and President Obama's ongoing "war on coal."

Back in 2008, Obama touted clean coal technologies as key to American energy independence, but since then it's hardly been a talking point.

But with the election seeming to hinge on a few key swing states like Ohio, which is deep in coal country, Obama's commitment to clean coal has re-emerged on his campaign website as one of the seven pillars of his energy policy, alongside nuclear, oil, natural gas, biofuels, wind and solar.

Coal is undoubtedly in trouble. While it's still the nation's largest source of electric power, its share has dwindled from around 50 percent to about a third.

Why? It depends who you ask.

According to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, coal's recent decline is a direct economic consequence of falling natural gas prices, which simply make coal uncompetitive.

According to Inhofe and coal industry leaders, it's because of burdensome and expensive environmental regulation, strategically strangling the industry to death.

Leading up to the Senate vote, the recently formed group American Commitment has spent $1 million on ad campaigns in four major coal states pressuring senators to support Inhofe, who needs just 51 votes to overturn the ruling.

Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has supported delaying implementation of the regulations, and Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has distanced himself from Obama, have both been targeted by the ad campaign and urged to stand up for their local coal industries. 

On the other side of the battlefield stand 90 mayors, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This week, the group of mayors voiced support for the regulation to clean up coal's environmental footprint in a letter submitted to the EPA.

"Mayors are on the front lines of protecting public health and this long overdue safeguard will reap tremendous benefits for our communities," the letter states.

Even if Inhofe's plan dies on the Senate floor, the President's so-called "war on coal" will continue to feature prominently in the discussing of America's energy future on the campaign trail. 

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