President Obama’s latest plan to fight climate change takes dead aim at the burning of coal, the biggest source of carbon emissions in the world. The Clean Power Plan is right on target, because no credible fight against global warming and other symptoms of a planet in distress can be waged without tackling the use of coal, the leading agent of climate change.
The president’s plan drew immediate fire from the usual sources, such as Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader. In a way, it’s to be expected. Leaders of coal-producing states like Kentucky and West Virginia can’t stand idly by while an industry that provides so many jobs for their states is attacked.
Their real fight, however, is not against Mr. Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency — or environmentalists, for that matter — but against the market. The growing realization that there are better and cheaper ways to produce energy is leading a transformation to cleaner fuels.
Signs that the coal industry is in decline are everywhere. As former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out in an Other Views essay last week, more than 50 percent of U.S. electric power came from coal in 2005. Today, it’s under 40 percent, and going down.
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Reports that the industry is dead may be premature. It’s certainly not going to vanish. There are still 15 coal-burning plants in Florida. The closest to South Florida is in Martin County on the Atlantic Coast. But the handwriting is on the wall for anyone who can read: On the same day that Mr. Obama announced his plan, Alpha Natural Resources, the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer, filed for bankruptcy protection. Other bankruptcies, like Walter Energy, preceded it.
Falling prices and heavy debt loads contributed to the collapse. But so, too, has the growing availability of cheaper (and cleaner) natural gas. Critics maintain that the cleanest sources of all — wind power and solar power — remain too problematic in terms of costs and scale to win market acceptance. Yet all the signs point to increasing adaptability and greater reliance by consumers, who like the idea of clean energy if the price is not out of reach.
The new rules announced by Mr. Obama are intended to promote these trends by cutting carbon-dioxide emissions by nearly one-third in 15 years, compared to the baseline of 2005. This is an achievable goal, provided the plan is not blocked by the courts.
On this score, the Supreme Court is largely on the side of the EPA, with Justice Antonin Scalia — of all people — ruling for the 7-2 majority last year that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon-dioxide and greenhouse-gas emissions. Last June, however, Justice Scalia led the majority in overturning another EPA air-quality rule because it did not consider the costs of regulation.
The latest plan does not tell utilities how to get emissions down, a point in its favor, but rather allows them flexibility to figure it out for themselves. And there are any number of ways to do it, including incentives for innovation, stressing energy efficiency and renewable energy. Or instituting a cap-and-trade system, which 10 states, including California and several in the Northeast, have already done.
All of this poses an issue for political leaders, especially Republicans who largely fall in the camp of either climate-change deniers or those who want to go slow on change. They can argue with the administration, but they can’t argue with the market and the inevitable changes coming in energy use.