Coal Tattoo


H.R. 2454, a bill on global warming and climate and energy strategy, sits on a desk in House Energy and Commerce Committee room on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 18,2009, during a markup of the legislation. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Our nation is at a crossroads. We can continue to look the other way and leave these problems to our children, or we can adopt a new energy policy for America.

— Henry Waxman, chairman, House Committee on Energy and Commerce

Stories (or blog posts) about something or other being a crossroads on an issue are kinda risky. And they’re kind of a dime a dozen. We in the media tend to look for such things, I guess, and overdo it.

But I’m not sure that’s the case this time. The American Clean Energy and Security Act is huge — literally (932  pages — see photo above) and figuratively — not to mention environmentally and economically.

There is tons of news coverage and even more commentary out there. The Associated Press has the basic goods here, explaining how the bill appears to be building enough support to pass out of committee this week. Chairman Waxman is predicting victory, though criticism from some industries and some in the environmental community is sharpening. There’s a summary of the bill here, and an interesting list of top 10 reasons to support it here. I also highly recommend my buddy Darren Samuelsohn’s ClimateWire summary, “Energy and Commerce panel’s Dems seek united front to pass climate bill.”

How about folks from coal country? I have not heard word from the United Mine Workers on its position on the current bill, but it appears that the National Mining Association continues to oppose it.

boucher.jpgBut Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., whose announced support last week for the bill was seen as one political key, said today:

Throughout the course of the negotiations, I have been in continuous discussions with a number of stakeholders including the coal industry, electric utilities and the United Mineworkers, and we are broadly in agreement that the legislation that is the product of our compromise should now move through the Energy and Commerce Committee to be considered in the full House of Representatives.


House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking Republican Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, right, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 18, 2009, during the markup of legislation on global warming and climate and energy strategy. Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. is at center, and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., listen as left. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Boucher explained that he’s been working closely with Waxman and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., to amend the bill in ways that would protect the nation’s coal industry:

These goals are the preservation of coal related jobs, the facilitation of growing coal production, and keeping electricity rates affordable in regions like Southwest Virginia where most of the electricity is coal fired. The compromise we have now achieved is a major step toward meeting these goals. 

Among the changes Boucher apparently was successful in obtaining:

— Language to give electric utilities 90 percent of their emission allowances without charge, with the goal being for state utility regulators to pass on those savings to consumers, thus helping to keep electricity rates down.

— A provision for 2 billion tons annually of offsets that enable electric utilities to invest in agriculture and forestry, including tropical rain forest preservation, as a means of meeting their emission reduction requirements under the law. This allows these utilities to continue using coal, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

–  A program to accelerate the flow of federal funding for the latest generation of carbon capture and storage technologies. Under this measure, $1 billion annually will be devoted to the development of these technologies for a 10-year period, and estimates — according to Boucher –  are that with this funding they will be available and reliable in 2020.

Importantly, while saying he would vote for the bill, Boucher said he planned to continue to work to further reduce the size of the carbon dioxide emissions reductions required in the short-term, or by 2020. Originally, the Waxman-Markey bill proposed cuts of 20 percent from 2005 emissions by 2020. That was dropped to 17 percent, and Boucher would like to see if further reduced, to 14 percent. This has been a big issue for the UMWA, which argues that the short-term emissions cuts must be relaxed to give the industry time to develop and widely deploy carbon capture and storage equipment.

Make no mistake — cuts of the greenhouse emissions from the coal industry are going to have to happen if we’re going to deal with climate change. Joseph Romm at Climate Progress has explained that the legislation’s 2020 pollution cuts would be equal to taking 500 million cars off the road — and double that figure by 2030.  But don’t forget, as this Union of Concerned Scientists graphic shows, one 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant’s greenhouse emissions are equal to that of 600,000 cars.


And, while the changes Boucher worked out may help get support from coal-state lawmakers, they are also the same changes that have some environmental groups criticizing the legislation at this point.  James Hansen, one of the nation’s top climate scientists, has come out saying he hopes the Waxman-Markey bill fails.

While some in the business community continue to attack the legislation, Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes that a number of major companies — Alcoa, American Electric Power, Dow Chemical, Dupont, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, Nike, Shell Oil and Xerox, and most recently, Duke Energy, have said they won’t renew membership in the National Association of Manufacturers because of disagreements over climate change policies. (Many of these companies are part of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, whose call for a reduction of greenhouse emissions of between 14 percent and 20 percent by 2020 was the starting point for the Waxman-Markey bill).

And also today, Knobloch’s group joined with a coalition of other organizations urging lawmakers to improve and then pass the Waxman-Markey bill. The Union of Concerned Scientists has explained how the free-emissions permits provisions of the bill could be improved, as well as outlined other ways to make the bill stronger.

In the end, one of the strongest statements in support of Waxman-Markey was today’s column in the New York Times by Paul Krugman:

It goes without saying that the usual suspects on the right have denounced Waxman-Markey: global warming isn’t real, emission limits will destroy the economy, yada yada. But the bill also faces opposition from some environmentalists, who are balking at the compromises the sponsors made to gain political support.

…So is Waxman-Markey — whose language was released last week — good enough? … The legislation now on the table isn’t the bill we’d ideally want, but it’s the bill we can get — and it’s vastly better than no bill at all.

After all the years of denial, after all the years of inaction, we finally have a chance to do something major about climate change. Waxman-Markey is imperfect, it’s disappointing in some respects, but it’s action we can take now. And the planet won’t wait.