Officials criticize Obama plan
CHARLESTON -- With West Virginia being the nation's second-leading coal producer, several of its elected officials on Tuesday predicted lost mining jobs and higher utility bills from President Barack Obama's plan to target carbon dioxide from power plants.
While Obama's challenge to such criticisms failed to sway those officials, a major electricity provider and Mountain State residents offered more measured views of the proposal. At least one environmental group, meanwhile, called for additional steps to combat fossil fuels.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a fellow Democrat who as governor battled Obama's Environmental Protection Agency over mining, said the plan to regulate heat-trapping gases from new and existing power plants will prove "completely impossible to meet with existing technology."
"And if it's not feasible, it's not reasonable," Manchin said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat who represents West Virginia's southern coalfields, condemned Obama's plan as "misguided, misinformed and untenable." Like Manchin, he and GOP U.S. Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley all warned that the proposal threatened both the jobs and the relatively cheap power source that coal provides.
"Today's announcement is another move in the president's tyrannical game of picking winners and losers in the energy industry," Capito said in her statement.
Obama announced Tuesday that he was directing his administration to launch the first-ever federal regulations on heat-trapping gases emitted by new and existing power plants -- "to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution."
Other aspects of the plan will boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures.
Even before Obama unveiled his plan Tuesday, Republican critics in Congress were lambasting it as a job-killer that would threaten the economic recovery. Obama dismissed those critics, noting the same arguments have been used in the past when the U.S. has taken other steps to protect the environment.
"That's what they said every time," Obama said. "And every time, they've been wrong."
Burning coal provided almost half the country's electricity nearly a decade ago, but such factors as cheaper natural gas helped reduce its share of the fuel mix to 37 percent by last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. More than 90 percent of the electricity produced in West Virginia comes from coal, the agency's latest figures show.
The president is deeply unpopular in West Virginia, at least partly because of his coal policies. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration is suing federal environmental regulators in one legal challenge and supporting mining interests in another. Tomblin did not immediately comment on Tuesday's proposal, though state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey joined fellow Republican counterparts from Alabama, Montana and Oklahoma to criticize the plan as "burdensome environmental overregulation."
Political leaders from coal-rich Kentucky offered up similar opinions and were quick to denounce the climate change initiatives, saying efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will hurt that state's mining industry while driving up energy costs. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in a statement ahead of Obama's Tuesday speech that the president's policies are "threatening the very way of life that has sustained Kentucky communities for generations." Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, has said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is waging a war on coal.
The point was supported by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on the Senate floor Tuesday.
"It's tantamount to kicking the ladder out from beneath the feet of many Americans struggling in today's economy," he said.
Both West Virginia and Kentucky have a deep economic and historical connection to the coal industry, but in recent years production in the Appalachian region has drastically dropped.
U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, a Republican from Ohio's 6th Congressional District, said he was "deeply troubled that President Obama recklessly escalated his War on Coal this afternoon by circumventing Congress, and by unilaterally moving forward with unattainable and costly standards on new and existing coal-fired power plants."
Obama's far-reaching plan marks the president's most prominent effort yet to deliver on a major priority he laid out in his first presidential campaign and recommitted to at the start of his second term: to fight climate change in the U.S. and abroad and prepare American communities for its effects. Environmental activists have been irked that Obama's high-minded goals never materialized into a comprehensive plan.
By expanding permitting on public lands, Obama hopes to generate enough electricity from renewable energy projects such as wind and solar to power the equivalent of 6 million homes by 2020, effectively doubling the electric capacity federal lands now produce. He also set a goal to install 100 megawatts of energy-producing capacity at federal housing projects by the end of the decade.
Obama also announced $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to spur investment in technologies that can keep carbon dioxide produced by power plants from being released into the atmosphere.
But the linchpin of Obama's plan is the controls on new and existing power plants. Forty percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and one-third of greenhouse gases overall, come from electric power plants, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. The Obama administration already has proposed controls on new plants, but those controls have been delayed and not yet finalized.
American Electric Power believes that utilities can continue to reduce carbon dioxide releases with minimal economic pain, but only if Obama's policy gives them enough time and flexibility, spokeswoman Melissa McHenry said. She also said regulators must recognize the role to be played by the scheduled retirement of older power plants.
"The president appears to be taking a balanced approach to addressing the issue," McHenry said in a statement.
Kevin Richards, a 40-year-old banker from Poca who stopped his motorcycle at a convenience store across the Kanawha River from AEP's coal-fired John Amos plant, said he didn't mind Obama ramping up wind and solar projects.
"But it seems to me that before you start eliminating some technologies in favor of new ones, you need to make sure that the new ones work, they're efficient, they're plentiful enough to be able to take the place of others," Richards said. "Any advancement is going to create some natural dishevelment. It's going to put people out of work. That's just natural evolutionary law."
Poca's Pam Yates, whose husband recently retired as a coal miner, had a simple message for the president on West Virginia coal: "Leave it alone."
"I think it's a bad idea that he does it," Yates said. "Look how many people he's going to put out of work. West Virginia's already hurting now."
She worried that a hit to the state's economy will trickle down to the future of West Virginia's children and the quality of education.
Future generations also were on the mind of John Needham of Inverness, Fla.
Needham, who lives next to a power plant, said during a stop for gas and lunch in Cross Lanes en route home from his mother's funeral in Waterbury, Conn., that he didn't mind Obama's decision one bit.
"You've got to worry about your grandkids, and your grandkids' grandkids," Needham said. "That's the way I look at it. I recycle everything, because if people didn't, in another 10 years, then we're going to be up to our ears in garbage."
While calling Tuesday's proposal a good first step, Executive Director Tom Cormons of the environmental group Appalachian Voices contrasted its $8 billion in loan guarantees with the $250 million it offers to help rural utilities finance renewable energy and efficiency investments.
"It's clear that we need to see a much stronger commitment," Cormons said in a statement.
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