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Environmental groups praise, coal backers condemn, Obama's climate steps

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 25, 2013: WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s decision to bypass Congress and impose new regulations that aim to reduce harmful emissions drew praise Tuesday from environmental groups and harsh criticism from many coal-state lawmakers.

Arguing that the challenge of climate change “does not pause for partisan gridlock,” Obama told a Georgetown University audience that his Climate Action Plan would cut carbon pollution and “protect our country from the impacts of climate change.”

While the Sierra Club Missouri called Obama’s plan “a giant step forward,” Republican lawmakers bashed the president’s approach as an “energy tax,” and congressional Democrats were divided – with some caution from those representing states like Missouri that rely heavily on coal-fired power plants.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – who has put a Senate “hold” on Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, which would issue the emissions regulations – accused the Obama administration of waging a “war on coal.”

Blunt said the planned tighter restrictions on emissions by coal-fired power plants “will hurt families and job creators in states like Missouri that rely heavily on coal for accessible and affordable power.”

Blunt added that the U.S. Energy Information Administration has found that coal provides more than 80 percent of Missouri’s power, and the state now has the 17th-lowest electricity prices in the nation. 

Obama’s comment that he would approve construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline only if the project “does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem” also stirred some controversy among lawmakers – and praise from environmentalists.

Environmental groups argue that exploiting the Canadian tar sands (oil from which the Keystone XL would carry) will worsen climate change. But other experts contend that the sands will be mined in any case and that the other transport option – carrying the oil by rail – would actually have a larger carbon footprint than a pipeline.

Both Blunt and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., are among the many senators who support the Keystone XL. In his statement, Blunt said Obama “continues to block and delay the job-creating Keystone XL pipeline, and now he’s proposing a plan that will lead to higher energy costs that further stall economic development.”

In late May, Blunt and every other Missouri Republican in the U.S. House sent a letter to Obama expressing “continued concern” about the EPA’s “plans to issue greenhouse gas (GHG) new source performance standard regulations for new fossil fuel-based electric generating sources.”

Obama’s Climate Action Plan “directs EPA to work closely with states, industry and other stakeholders to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants,” butit  does not mandate specifics. The EPA is currently reviewing an earlier proposed rule that drew more than 2 million comments.

In their letter, the Missouri GOP lawmakers argued that the proposed EPA rule “will set an unprecedented standard under the Clean Air Act, and we urge you to consider an alternative approach to address GHG emissions in a way that will not harm our economy or endanger our electricity supply.”

Meanwhile, Missouri Democrats on Capitol Hill were more supportive of Obama’s goals, if not with all of the specifics in his plan.

McCaskill sought to straddle the middle ground in her comments Tuesday, praising Obama for addressing climate change but calling for a “serious review” of some of the power-plant regulations that would affect Missouri. 

“Climate change is a real and growing threat to the health and livelihoods of Missourians, and our kids and grandkids,” McCaskill said. "Some of these proposals seem like they may be workable — especially ideas to get other countries like China on board with reducing pollution.”

But McCaskill added that other proposals, “like those affecting existing power plants, will need serious review to ensure they don’t harm working families. It would clearly be preferable if such an important policy debate was addressed through the normal legislative process. So I’ll be taking a hard look at these ideas and seeking input from Missouri families and businesses.”

John Hickey, director of the Sierra Club Missouri, called Obama’s directives and plan “the change Missourians have been waiting for on climate. President Obama is finally putting action behind his words” on climate change.

Hickey praised Obama’s commitment to new energy efficiency standards for federal buildings, scaling up “responsible clean energy production on public lands” and using “the full authority of the Clean Air Act to cut dangerous carbon pollution from power plants”

Hickey said Obama “is stepping up to reduce the climate-disrupting pollution that is destabilizing our climate while threatening our economy and endangering our communities and families with extreme weather and dramatic sea level increases.”

But U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., who co-chairs the Congressional Coal Caucus and represents a coal-rich area of southwestern Illinois, said he would “work tirelessly against any proposed new federal mandates that will increase our energy costs, and decimate our southern Illinois coal industry in the process.”

In a statement, Enyart said, “Coal continues to be the single largest source for America’s electricity supply. And while we all support a clean and sustainable environment, President Obama is ignoring the fact that coal emissions are lower than ever before.” He accused Obama of taking “direct aim at coal.”

Taking exception to that criticism was another Democrat from the St. Louis area, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. In an interview, Clay said Obama was right to take actions aimed at slowing climate change and protecting Americans from its impact, and he said industries need to take responsibility to help reduce harmful emissions.  

Clay said, “Industries should do their part to clean up the air.” He rejected the argument that reducing harmful emissions will result in higher costs and rates, saying that industries should not “hide behind the issue of transferring the costs to consumers.”

A progressive group, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), commended Obama for his Climate Action Plan, but called it “only one small step for what is necessary to mitigate and adapt for the ongoing climate crisis.”

In a statement, MORE said, “Climate action must be about more than simply transitioning to clean energy. To create a sustainable future, we must put resources into green job training and creation to employ low-income communities and communities of color that have been hit the hardest by the ongoing financial crisis and the long history of resource extraction in this country.”

But the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry criticized Obama’s climate initiative and its potential impact on the economies of states such as Missouri.

“President Obama’s plan to escalate his 'War on Coal' is destroying jobs and raising costs across the nation,” said Missouri Chamber President Dan Mehan.

“His edict gives little thought to the impact of the economy, especially in states like Missouri, which relies on coal for more than 80 percent of its energy supply.”

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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