IBEW Criticizes EPA’s New Coal Emission Standards

Conflict highlights tension between labor, environmentalists in Dem coalition

September 23, 2013

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) blasted the Obama administration’s new standards for coal plant emissions on Monday, saying they will hamper job growth and U.S. energy independence and raise electricity prices.

The union’s antipathy to the plan underscores a long-running tension between big labor and environmentalists, two key segments of the Democratic Party’s political base.

"The draft regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency regarding emissions from newly-constructed power plants threaten economic growth and America’s energy future," IBEW president Edwin Hill said in a statement.

The regulations propose strict emissions caps for coal-fired power plants, which will have to install costly carbon sequestration systems, which experts say are not yet technologically viable, to meet EPA’s emissions targets.

"The new rules would in effect stop the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States by enforcing emission-reduction goals that just aren’t realistic using today’s technology for carbon capture and sequestration," Hill said.

Despite its strict emissions caps, some environmentalist groups have said that EPA’s regulations are not strict enough.

"If we’re really serious about tackling the climate crisis—and morality dictates that we must be—we just have to do more than this," Bill Snape, chief counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

However, IBEW claims the regulations will have serious economic consequences as currently written.

"This means higher electricity bills for consumers and layoffs and economic slowdown for tens of thousands of working families that rely on the coal industry for employment," Hill said.

IBEW joins a handful of other labor unions that have decried efforts to implement regulations they say will force the coal industry out of business.

"The Navy SEALs shot Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington," United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts said in April of prior EPA regulations. Jackson was the agency’s chief until February.

"The unions oppose President Obama’s new coal rule for a simple reason: It’s terrible for the economy," said William Yeatman, an energy policy expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"By mandating an unachievable standard, EPA’s anti-energy regulation effectively bans new coal power, thereby taking America’s cheapest source of electricity off the table," Yeatman said in an email. "It’s unprecedented."

Members of a local Boilermakers Union in Pennsylvania this July protested what they saw as attempts to shut down two coal plants in the area. Raymond Ventrone, the local’s business manager, said EPA’s coal regulations are "a big labor issue."

Labor’s consistent support for the Democratic Party also presents political problems. Republicans see EPA’s new regulations as a means to drive a wedge between labor and environmentalists—two key Democratic constituencies.

"The Democrats’ loosely tied coalitions are splintering, whether it’s the unions fighting against Obamacare or, as we are starting to see now, environmentalists and unions fighting each other over EPA overreach," Republican National Committee spokesman Raffi Williams said in an emailed statement.

Alison Lundergan-Grimes, a Democratic candidate for Senate in Kentucky, accused the Obama administration of taking "direct aim at Kentucky jobs," in a statement last week.

"While it is important to protect the environment, it is just as important to make sure the men and women of Kentucky are able to provide for their families," a Grimes’ campaign spokesman said.

Grimes’ Republican opponent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, recently offered legislation to prohibit EPA’s new coal plant regulations. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) blocked the effort.

Reid’s caucus is not unified behind his position. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) has vowed another legislative push to stop the new regulations.

Grimes criticized McConnell for not being effective enough at countering new EPA regulations. But despite her pro-coal stance, she has been unable to court industry backers, who doubt she would be a stronger advocate than McConnell, even as she turns off environmentalist groups.

"Basically, we will have to hold our noses and vote for Grimes, but I don’t see us donating money, putting up yard signs or working at the grassroots level to help her get elected," Kentucky Climate Action Network director Sarah Lynn Cunningham said to a local news outlet.

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D.), who has attracted support from high-profile environmentalists despite running in a coal-heavy state, has refused to weigh in on EPA’s latest regulations.