The G.O.P.’s Myopia on Coal

IT’S no secret that American coal companies are facing tough times.

Shares of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, have lost more than 90 percent of their value over the last year, and Arch Coal has seen its shares plummet to less than $2 from about $28 a year ago (and nearly $360 in 2011). Another major producer, Alpha Natural Resources, filed for bankruptcy protection in August.

While it may not qualify for life support just yet, the American coal industry is decidedly unhealthy.

Republicans in Congress like to blame what they call President Obama’s “war on coal.” In particular, they single out for scorn the president’s Clean Power Plan, which will set first-time emissions standards for carbon dioxide on coal-fired power plants by 2022. Many old, dirty plants will close as a result.

The industry’s self-described defenders seem to assume that without these rules, American coal would be financially sound into the foreseeable future because Americans — and people everywhere — still need cheap energy. If a hypothetical Republican president forgoes carbon regulations, they believe, the industry’s problems will be solved and we can get back to business as usual.

It’s not that simple, and my colleagues help no one by pretending otherwise. Coal companies are struggling largely because domestic coal is not economically competitive with the country’s cheap and abundant natural gas. That would be true no matter who was president or what climate quality standards we had in place.

The “blame Obama” argument essentially boils down to ignoring economics and pretending that the implementation schedule for the Clean Power Plan, which requires mandatory emissions reductions beginning in 2022, is a bureaucratic overreach rather than the compromise it represents. (The original implementation date was 2020.)

Coal’s would-be friends in Washington have decided to bash the administration and defend the status quo rather than offer a way forward. They’ve also largely ignored legislative attempts to help the industry comply with incoming climate standards. It’s worth examining why.

Companies will need advanced technologies to meet the new standards. Whether it is capturing carbon at the smokestack or some other method, breakthroughs will be required for coal to stay viable in a new world of emissions rules. If you’re a lawmaker who wants to keep today’s coal industry alive under the Clean Power Plan, standing pat is not an option.

Given that reality, you’d think that support for efforts to reduce coal’s climate-changing emissions would be in the Republican Party’s platform by now. But ask almost any Republican on an environmental committee — or better yet, ask the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, of the coal state of Kentucky — where his or her bill is to support these options, and it’s a good bet you’ll get a blank stare.

That’s because, for all their sound and fury on the importance of American coal mining, some of my colleagues have boxed themselves in so tightly by denying the science of climate change that any solution is impossible for them to support. In the unusual world of climate politics, Republicans who help coal companies reduce their carbon emissions would have to admit that those emissions are a problem worth discussing — and for a variety of reasons, they can’t do that.

Endorsing federal funding for pilot projects for carbon capture, which the industry wants, or opening the door to new potential technologies for reducing coal’s climate impact would qualify as caving in to the environmental lobby. Since Republicans control both the House and Senate, this upside-down political dynamic has become the biggest obstacle to the industry’s getting what it wants most: assistance in meeting the new standards.

Bills pending in the House and Senate would offer varying degrees of federal support for carbon capture technology. You can agree or disagree philosophically with spending taxpayer money to smooth the way forward for coal, but most of my Republican counterparts don’t even want to discuss the issue. In fact, they certainly don’t want to talk about the larger issue of why climate standards are necessary.

By adopting a post-Obama political vision of lax federal regulation and a return to pre-Obama profit margins, some of my colleagues have made themselves irrelevant to serious discussions about the coal industry’s future. Those of us who want to see coal company employees successfully navigate the rough waters ahead are more interested in providing economic opportunities than in posturing. But we can’t have that discussion as long as climate change is treated as a hoax.

By:  Raúl M. Grijalva
Source: The New York Times