Politics

W. Virginia Democrats slam Obama for omitting coal from his energy policy

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Michael Bastasch Energy Editor

West Virginia Democrats moved quickly to criticize President Barack Obama after he failed to mention what role coal would play in his energy policy during the State of the Union address.

“I was disappointed on energy — not to say a world about coal. Coal produces 35 percent of the nation’s energy, and when you look at it and you gotta talk about climate … you should be finding the technology that helps use it cleaner … so that was disappointing,” said West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

“[O]n the energy front, he is absolutely wrong in his misguided efforts to circumvent the Congress with unilateral regulatory actions that will result in job loss, especially when it comes to the EPA’s unfair and inequitable treatment of coal mining in Appalachia, which the Congress and the courts are rightly resisting,” said West Virginia Democatic Rep. Nick J. Rahall.

The coal industry has a major presence in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia. In 2011, the state produced 139.4 million tons of coal, down significantly from historic high production levels in the late 1990s.

The president’s omission of coal from his address on Tuesday night is a marked departure from the past two years that he has shown for clean coal. In his 2011 address, the president announced a goal of generating 80 percent of America’s power from clean energy sources, including clean coal.

Then in 2012, Obama outlined an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy which he promoted on the campaign trail. This strategy included support for clean coal technologies.

“With respect to something like coal, we made the largest investment in clean coal technology, to make sure that even as we’re producing more coal, we’re producing it cleaner and smarter,” Obama said in the second presidential debate.

However, critics charge that Obama’s record on coal has been less than supportive. The Environmental Protection Agency has imposed a massive regulatory overhaul to curb greenhouse gas emissions, targeting coal plants.

“Under the Obama Administration, the EPA has aggressively levied job-killing regulations on affordable, proven energy sources,” said Georgia Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey. “As we’ve learned with Georgia Power, EPA’s war on coal will continue to cost American workers their jobs.”

For example, just one EPA rule — the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule — will cost $10 billion per year — more than the total cost of all 2010 clean air regulations for the electric sector.

In September, estimates showed that more than 200 coal-fired generators were slated for retirement across 25 states, according to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. (RELATED: More than 200 coal-fired generators slated for shutdown)

Also, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation determined that 20 percent of the country’s coal-fired generation will be shut down by 2017.

Natural gas has been gaining on coal as a major source of electricity generation in the country over the past three years, with a boom in natural production significantly lowering prices and environmental regulators increasingly cracking down on coal plants, a major source of carbon dioxide emissions.

In 2011, 42 percent of the country’s electricity was generated from coal, while 25 percent came from natural gas.

Environmental groups have been putting pressure on the Obama administration to expand carbon dioxide emission limits to existing power plants in order to shift power generation to zero-to-low carbon-emitting plants.

“The president has a full box of tools to strike back at climate chaos. The best tool he has is the Clean Air Act,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It gives him the authority to reduce the carbon pollution from our dirtiest power plants, the single greatest threat to our climate future.”

The EPA has proposed standards for existing power plants, but has not for new power plants. Extending such limits to existing power plants would impose huge costs on coal power plants.

“While we’re disappointed the President did not mention coal specifically, we are encouraged by the President’s emphasis on technology as a path forward for America’s energy future,” said Mike Duncan, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in response to Obama’s speech Tuesday night.

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