Obama’s War on Coal

Climate Action Plan will increase costs, do little to reduce carbon emissions

June 25, 2013

President Barack Obama unveiled a radical proposal to restrict fossil fuel production on Tuesday in a move experts say will have little to no impact on global climate and significant adverse economic consequences for the nation.

The White House unveiled its "Climate Action Plan" Tuesday morning, and the president touted the effort at a 2 p.m. speech at Georgetown University.

The plan proposes punitive regulations on coal-fired power plants, more federal spending on "green energy" projects, and infrastructure spending projects designed to mitigate the supposedly catastrophic impacts of rising global temperatures.

One White House climate adviser told the New York Times that he hopes the president’s proposals will "begin the process of shutting down the conventional coal plants."

"A war on coal is exactly what’s needed," he said.

The central messaging point of the Climate Action Plan is that carbon dioxide (CO2), the chemical compound that sustains vegetative life, is "pollution."

The proposal compares industrial CO2 emissions to the release of toxic chemicals such as arsenic and mercury and uses the phrase "carbon pollution" 19 times.

That rationale also undergirded the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 decision to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. The agency has since proposed regulations on emissions from new power plants that critics say amount to a de facto ban on new coal plants.

Obama’s Climate Action Plan expands those regulations to all existing coal-fired power plants.

Experts say the measure will have negligible impacts on global CO2 emissions, let alone global temperature changes but will have severe adverse economic impacts on the nation’s coal industry and electricity consumers.

"The president’s restrictions are economically ruinous while providing no appreciable benefit," said James Taylor, senior fellow for environmental policy at the Heartland Institute.

The United States accounts for only 13 percent of global coal production and only 3 percent of planned new production, according to the World Resources Institute. China and India alone account for 55 percent and 76 percent of existing and planned production, respectively.

Those nations must enact similarly radical reductions in fossil fuel use "for anything really to happen in terms of reducing CO2 emissions to an extent that it might actually have some recognizable impact on climate change," said Chip Knappenberger, assistant director for the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.

Knappenberger said he doesn’t expect the world’s developing nations, which include some of the largest emitters, to play ball despite portions in the Climate Action Plan designed to encourage similar greenhouse gas reduction measures on an international scale.

"It’s going to be a hard sell, I think, to say, ‘we’ve got ours, now you can’t have yours, you have to go about getting it in a different sort of way’ when they’re trying to build their economies and electrify their countries," he said.

The world is currently "awash in fossil fuels" due to advances in oil and gas extraction techniques, Knappenberger said. That abundance will make severe carbon restrictions an even harder sell on the global political stage.

Knappenberger said nothing the United States can do with respect to carbon emissions will have any significant impact on the global climate.

He authored a study in April that found, using data models from the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that U.S. carbon emission reductions would lead to very small reductions in global temperatures.

"If the U.S. as a whole stopped emitting all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions immediately, the ultimate impact on projected global temperature rise would be a reduction, or a "savings," of approximately 0.08°C by the year 2050 and 0.17°C by the year 2100—amounts that are, for all intents and purposes, negligible," the study found.

IPCC climate projections are already under scrutiny as scientists struggle to explain why global warming appears to have slowed, or even stopped, since 1997.

"My own confidence in the data [projecting a rapidly rising climate] has gone down in the past five years," climate change expert Richard Tol told Reuters in April.

There is little doubt that carbon emissions "increase the pressure on the climate to warm," Knappenberger said, but "there’s an uncertainty of how fast we’re moving in that direction and what the magnitude might be."

"The globe is not warming at anywhere near the rate we thought it would be," he noted.

Obama’s Climate Action Plan is unequivocal in its insistence that the Earth is rapidly warming and that the dire consequences of that warming are already being seen in record-high temperatures and extreme weather events despite these apparent discrepancies in climate data.

Some climate scientists dispute the data used to support the proposal.

"The claim of ‘The 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15 years’ isn’t supported by the state all time high temperature records," noted meteorologist Anthony Watts regarding one alarming claim made in the president’s proposal.

That metric, Watts said, "only exists in the highly adjusted national average. … It also isn’t supported in the general population of stations."

The proposal also cites the increasing financial costs of natural disasters as evidence of adverse climate change effects. But as noted in the scientific journal Nature, "the long-term rise in the costs of global disasters is probably due mainly to socio-economic changes, such as population growth and development in vulnerable regions."

Knappenberger says the focus on the costs of natural disasters is the product of a one-sided analysis of the economic consequences of major weather events.

He noted in a blog post on Friday that federal officials who frequently warn of the catastrophic economic impacts of weather events supposedly caused by global warming ignore "billion dollar weather/climate events that were averted for reasons ‘consistent with’ global warming."

Knappenberger assembled a list of potentially damaging weather events "that failed to materialize for scientifically valid reasons that were entirely ‘consistent with’ expectations from anthropogenic climate change."

By ignoring positive externalities associated with global warming’s weather impacts, which he acknowledged are difficult to measure, Knappenberger says officials have provided a skewed view of the financial impacts of a rising climate.

The economic impacts of an attempt to avert that increase could have far more direct and near-term financial consequences for the nation’s least economically fortunate, others noted.

"For regulations to have a big impact they’ll need to shut down some of the dirtiest plants and at least temporarily increase electricity prices—a move that will have a much harsher impact on the poor, the Southeast, and the Midwest than on prosperous people on the low-carbon West Coast," noted liberal Slate blogger Matthew Yglesias on Monday.

Recognizing that fact, legislators from those regions lashed out at the president’s plan on Tuesday.

Obama "is personally responsible for the loss of thousands of jobs," said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R., Ky.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power and hails from a coal-rich state.

"He obviously does not have much interest in states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wyoming, where the coal industry is so vitally important, and we are losing jobs dramatically," Whitfield added.

The Climate Action Plan also drew the ire of coal workers, who said its economic consequences would be dire.

"Coal power plants generate more electricity and create and sustain more jobs than any other energy source," said National Mining Association president Hal Quinn in a news release. "So policies that shut off coal energy damage the nation's job and economic engine while also raising costs to American consumers."

News reports supported those warnings. The proposal, the Washington Post said, "will raise consumers’ electricity prices in the short term as utilities are forced to shutter aging coal plants to comply with stricter pollution limits."

That consequence is consistent with statements from then-presidential candidate Obama, who said in 2008 that under the carbon emission reduction plan he hoped to enact, "electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket."

Obama’s latest climate effort comes as carbon emissions in the U.S. have dropped to 1994 levels.

"The U.S.’s role in global warming is diminishing as the rest of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions continues to rise," Knappenberger noted.

He attributed some of that decline to the recent economic downturn, but much of it is attributable to increased natural gas use as a result of hydraulic fracturing and other innovative means to extract natural gas, which burns cleaner than oil or coal.

"I think they’re coming at it from an ideological perspective," Knappenberger said of the administration’s approach to climate policy, rather than a pragmatic determination to address the issue.