Climate Plan: Coal Power Losing Heat

Mon, 2013-07-01 09:25

On June 25, 2013, President Obama outlined his Climate Plan in a speech at Georgetown University. The plan’s most striking element involves carbon limits that will soon be placed upon coal power plants. The Coal Energy lobby is a serious opponent to be reckoned with; however, it seems that in his second term, the President is ready for the battle ahead.

“The President realizes that you can’t combat climate change without a direct confrontation with the fossil fuel industry.” said Michael Brune, an executive director for the Sierra Club. “What has us most encouraged by the President’s speech is that he is lacing up his gloves and getting ready for that fight.”

Why This is a Fight

The President is certainly taking this endeavor upon his shoulders with the introduction of this plan through his executive power after Congress failed to pass the legislation. The bypassing of Congress is unfortunate because of the precedent it sets for future Presidents and the undermining effect this method has upon the legislative process and the balance of power. However, it would certainly be naïve to suggest that this trend of using executive power to enact presidential initiatives hasn’t been the norm for presidents in the past 30 years. More importantly, perhaps, is that a plan like this is nearly impossible to pass through Congress because of the overwhelming control that large lobbies like coal have over politicians due to the campaign contributions that they provide each year. Regardless, this plan still has a long and arduous road ahead, filled with challenges in court from state and industry legal teams prior to its implementation.

An important factor to the proposal of this more controversial energy policy is that Obama is in the second term of his presidency. Although, while the absence of reelection worries is a major aid to having such pioneering legislation proposed, it also becomes an obstacle once state and industry court delays are taken into account. Many aspects of Obama’s Climate Plan have long-term goals that will not necessarily come into fruition for several years down the road. If this plan fails to promote any immediate economic benefits by 2018, then it might not be too irrational to think that the next administration would scrap it and return to the tried and true stability that coal has provided for our domestic energy production.

The Alternative

Obama’s plan relies heavily on natural gas as a “transition fuel.” The shift from coal to natural gas is definitely feasible, considering the large reserves of natural gas here in the United States. Power companies are quickly becoming more aware that natural gas burns much cleaner than coal, and most importantly that it is currently more affordable. As a result, many have begun to retrofit their coal-powered plants for natural gas power production. In New Castle, Pennsylvania, NRG Energy is already converting its coal-fired power plant to gas. The company hopes to have the plant back in operation on its new fuel source by May 2016. This short timeline signals that the infrastructure changes necessary for the switch are not very time consuming. Prior to the conversion, the New Castle plant was slated to shut down in 2015 due to the stiff environmental regulations that are already in place. However, after the retrofitting the plant will be able to stay open and continue to provide jobs. The New Castle plant was not alone in its initial retirement sentence, 11 other coal-fired power plants are also scheduled to be shut down in 2016 throughout Pennsylvania. To replace this loss of power there are 9 new gas-powered plants applying for permit approval before construction can begin. Interestingly enough, this trend of replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas was established before the President’s plan had been released and serves as a promising indicator for the success of this initiative.

A Bold Comparison

President Obama also emphasized American ingenuity in his speech, stressing that Americans need to “shape the future.” He also compared this climate plan to the challenge proposed by President Kennedy to have an American be the first man on the Moon. The main detractor from this momentous comparison is that Kennedy’s plan had a distinct foreign “enemy” in mind, the Soviet Union, and he was able to unite Americans through the use of Cold War nationalism and thus gain overwhelming support for his plan. However, Obama’s “challenge” seems to have painted the coal industry (and many coal-supporting Republicans) as the enemy, which is an incredibly divisive strategy when attempting to drum up domestic support for an initiative. However, the President was able to incite some emotional support through his construction of a competition with Europe, and most notably China, to have America be the leader in clean energy on an international scale.

Certainly from an economic standpoint, if America were to lead the next generation of energy technology, exports, and infrastructure development, it would rejuvenate the economy and add thousands of jobs across the nation. This plan is an incredible opportunity for America to achieve such a recovery while also cutting carbon emissions and helping to create a better future for generations to come. Hopefully we don’t miss it.

By Peter J. Bock & Nolan Canter


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