Lauren R. Stevens: Overdue war on coal



The simplest way to understand the Obama administration’s approach to climate change, which Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy announced at the beginning of the month, is to accept the derisive label its detractors have attached: It is, in fact, a war on coal. About time, too. Specifically on coal-fired power plants, which produce 40 percent of the country’s carbon emissions.

There is no need to apologize, except to provide political cover for Democrats running for office in coal-producing states. Even without climate change, mining and burning coal are unhealthy for humans and the environment. We regret the loss of jobs; programs should be put in place to help the miners, just as tobacco farmers were aided.

Electricity is the common currency for the 21st century. Its use is nonpolluting (discounting utility poles) and non-health threatening (although some dispute that). The issue is how to generate it. The administration’s goal is to do that with distributed, low-polluting, renewable energy.

Unfortunately, in spite of considerable progress, we cannot get there fast enough, so the administration has turned to natural gas as a transition fuel. Yes, natural gas is far less polluting and less of a health threat than coal; still it is not renewable and mining it by fracking, at least, poses considerable health and pollution issues.

Furthermore, transporting it raises additional issues. Among the alternatives of railroad, trucks or pipelines, it would appear that the latter, while disruptive, is most benign; certainly the safest. Still, we have to keep asking, is this pipeline necessary?


Those who speak out against renewable fuels, such as wind and solar, need to consider where their electricity is going to come from. Some locations for turbines are poorer than others, and some turbines are noisier than others, nevertheless does anyone favor coal? Oil? Gas? Nuclear, when the country is yet to solve storing its most potent and long-lasting radioactive waste? But our lives run on electricity.

The president’s approach is built on steps the EPA has already taken to improve vehicle mileage and hold high standards for new power plant construction. As Elizabeth Kolbert points out in her "New Yorker" blog, with those steps, with the abundance of natural gas and with economic uncertainties, carbon emissions from the energy sector fell by 15 per cent from 2005 to 2012. In other words, we are already halfway to the president’s proposed 2030 goal of 30 percent reduction over 2005. We could say, well, then, this new goal isn’t all that exciting; or we could rejoice that this is a goal we can actually reach -- provided of course that Congress, the courts and individual states don’t sabotage it.

The EPA sets varied reduction goals for each state, in order to soften the change for states most dependent on coal. Each state gets to decide how to meet its goal, according to procedures set by the Clean Air Act.

Here’s the kicker. If other countries, including China and India, believe that we are serious about following this plan to reduce our carbon emissions, they are more likely to do so themselves. Perhaps the net progress will not be enough to hold the world to heating below two degrees Celsius, but it’s a lot better than doing nothing.

At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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