Coal Industry Concerned By Obama's Climate Change Plans

President Obama on Tuesday announced a wide-ranging plan to address climate change. Rather than taking it to Congress, Obama is implementing the plan on his own. The president wants the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The biggest source of those emissions is coal-fired facilities.

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And before leaving on his trip to Africa, President Obama had some other words on another subject. He announced a wide-ranging plan to address climate change. Rather than taking that plan to Congress and fighting it out, Obama is using his executive powers to implement it without new laws. The president wants the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The biggest source of those emissions is coal-fired facilities.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports that has the coal industry and its supporters worried.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: As President Obama spoke to a crowd at Georgetown University Tuesday, the hot, humid weather seemed a fitting backdrop to his climate change speech. The president periodically wiped his face with a handkerchief as he laid out the problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, about 40 percent of America's carbon pollution comes from our power plants.

BRADY: Obama says the country already limits toxic substances in the environment such as mercury, sulfur and arsenic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: But power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That's not right. That's not safe, and it needs to stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BRADY: The president said new rules are needed, not just for proposed power plants, but for existing ones. Republicans from coal states couldn't wait to criticize the president's plan. In fact, some didn't wait. Here's Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, hours before the president's speech.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Declaring a war on coal is tantamount to declaring a war on jobs.

BRADY: On the Fox News channel, Representative Ed Whitfield - also from Kentucky - said the president's plan would harm an already ailing coal industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

REPRESENTATIVE ED WHITFIELD: He obviously does not have much interest in states like Kentucky, Tennessee, Wyoming, where the coal industry is so vitally important and we're losing jobs dramatically.

BRADY: In West Virginia, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said he would look for ways to challenge the constitutionality of the new rules. Just a few years back, burning coal generated about half the electricity in the U.S. Last year, the Department of Energy says that number declined to 37 percent. The U.S. coal industry worries President Obama's plan could put it out of business.

LISA CAMOOSO MILLER: Potentially, his actions could make it so that coal power would cease to exist in America.

BRADY: Lisa Camooso Miller is a vice president with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Her group campaigns to keep the coal industry a profitable part of the U.S. economy. In coming months, you can expect to hear this argument repeated many times as the EPA develops its new rules.

MILLER: If coal were to be erased from the electricity grid in America, it will not be erased from the globe. And what it will provide is affordable and reliable electricity for our competitors in the global marketplace.

BRADY: Another point Miller mentions often: the billions of dollars being spent trying to make burning coal a cleaner proposition. It's not exactly clear what the coal industry's future will look like after these rules, because no one knows what the rules are yet. The president's plan doesn't include details, just broad mandates. That left some on the political left unsatisfied.

The group Public Citizen criticized the president for not going far enough in developing specifics, but many others who are concerned about climate change welcome the president's words. Vicki Arroyo is executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center.

VICKI ARROYO: You know, I don't think there's time for cynicism at this point. We have really lost a lot of time debating in Washington whether or not climate change is happening, even though the vast majority of Americans know in their bones that something is different now.

BRADY: Arroyo says other parts of the president's plan also are important, such as helping low-lying places like Florida deal with the effects of climate change. The president also said the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada will not get his approval if it contributes significantly to carbon pollution. The biggest announcement, though, remains the EPA mandate.

Now the agency begins an ambitious public process to develop the new rules. Obama says he wants a draft ready in about a year, with a final rule in place in 2015. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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