President Obama laid out an ambitious national plan to tackle climate change last Tuesday that includes new regulations for power plants and support for the ongoing natural gas boom facilitated by fracking, the enhanced oil-and-gas drilling technique that has sparked nationwide controversy.
Mainstream environmental groups are applauding the plan, but it's already the target of backlash from the coal industry's powerful allies and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the anti-fracking movement, which has emerged as a powerful grassroots force within the world of environmental activism.
Coal's War on Obama
At the top of Obama's climate action agenda is a memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to place the first-ever caps on carbon emissions from both new and existing power plants, which are the nation's largest concentrated source of carbon dioxide pollution.
America's power plants largely rely on coal, and the EPA reports that they are responsible for 40 percent of domestic carbon dioxide emissions and one-third of domestic greenhouse gas emissions overall. For years, environmental groups have pushed for a federal cap on carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants.
As Obama acknowledged in his speech, some power companies are already investing in pollution control technology and cleaner fuels such as natural gas. The coal industry and its allies in Washington, however, are still expected to challenge the proposed caps in court and continue an aggressive media campaign to accuse Obama of waging a job-killing "war on coal."
A similar effort by the EPA to cap emissions of toxic chemicals and metals from power plants - which contribute to child asthma, premature deaths and cancer - was stalled for nearly a decade by industry challenges and opposition from Republicans in Congress before being implemented in 2011. Legal challenges to the standards, which the EPA calls "long overdue," are still pending.
Republicans are already repeating the "war on coal" rhetoric to attack Obama's plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants.
"Declaring a war on coal is tantamount to declaring a war on jobs," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor on Tuesday. "It’s tantamount to kicking the ladder out from beneath the feet of many Americans struggling in today’s economy, and I will be raising this issue at the White House with the president later today."
McConnell, who represents the coal-heavy state of Kentucky, was referring to comments by Daniel Schrag, a geochemist and outside adviser to the White House on climate issues, who told The New York Times that the president should move toward shutting down conventional coal plants.
In his speech at Georgetown University, Obama referred to his pro-coal detractors as "special interests" that suggest a "lack of faith in American business and ingenuity."
"Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children and the health of our economy," Obama said.
Round Two for the EPA and Power Plant Emissions
Despite legal challenges and pressure from pro-industry politicians, the EPA had already been developing rules to cap emissions from future power plant fleets, but the agency recently missed a deadline to roll the rule out. Now, under Obama's directive, the agency is expected to issue rules to cap carbon emissions from existing power plants as well.
Obama wants the EPA to propose the new rules by June 2014 and implement them a year later, but it remains unclear exactly what the new emission rules will look like and whether they will be stalled by industry challenges. Older coal-burning power plants will likely be required to invest in costly updates or shut down, and new plants may invest in carbon capture technology or rely more heavily on cleaner fuels such as natural gas.
"Carbon pollution from power plants is a huge part of the global warming problem," said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America, a coalition of environmental groups. ". . . President Obama acknowledged this and mapped out a plan for cleaning up this pollution. We also know that this plan is just one important step in a multi-year effort and that the proof of the plan’s success will be in the pudding."
Obama Wants More Fracking
Obama's climate plan includes investment in renewable energy on public lands and the development of higher energy efficiency standards, but the nation will not rely solely on the wind and sun to meet its energy needs as it moves away from its dependence on coal power. So, Obama plans to bolster natural gas production and use gas as a cleaner-burning "bridge" fuel as the country works to decrease its dependence on fossil fuels.
Natural gas production and consumption are at an all-time high due in part to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," technology that has allowed drillers to tap more gas reserves and is facilitating a nationwide gas boom.
"And again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but we should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium-term at least, it can provide not only safe, cheap power, but it can only help reduce our carbon emissions," Obama said.
The gas rush is lining the pockets of energy companies and providing cheap fuel that burns cleaner than coal, but the fracking-related processes have wide-reaching impacts and have caused earthquakes, accidents and alleged water contamination events across the country.
The anti-fracking movement has arisen as one of the heartiest in grassroots environmentalism, and eco-groups are already speaking out against Obama's plan to expand fracking. Obama's speech, they say, ignored the broad concerns about fracking, and his proposals for regulating the industry do not go far enough.
"We welcome the president’s leadership that natural gas companies should disclose the chemicals they are injecting during drilling operations on public lands," said Heather White of the Environmental Working Group. "But, that isn’t going to be enough to satisfy grassroots outrage about the David versus Goliath battles in which local communities find themselves pitted against giant drilling companies. People are worried about their water, their health and the value of their property after drilling."
Environmentalists also say that Obama's plan to rely heavily on another fossil fuel shows that he is not taking the climate challenge seriously.
"[Obama] can choose to ignore science - as climate change deniers still do - and support dirty fossil fuels like fracking-enabled oil and gas development, and the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline," said Earthworks Director Jennifer Krill, in a statement. "Or he can follow common sense and his own scientists, and shift the resources and brainpower that have supported dirty energy to instead encourage the use of conservation and renewables."
Earthworks and other environmental groups point to government studies that have found that methane leaks from natural gas drilling (fracking) and transport are much higher than originally assumed and pose a threat to the climate because methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The EPA, however, recently lowered its estimate of how much methane the fracking industry releases into the atmosphere.
Obama, perhaps aware that his push for natural gas would garner criticism from environmentalists, did mention in his speech on Tuesday that his administration would work with the industry "to make drilling safer and cleaner" and "make sure we're not seeing methane emissions." Comprehensive federal regulations of the fracking industry, however, may still be years down the road. The EPA is still working on a study on fracking's impact to water supplies that will not be completed until next year.