Energy 2014: New Battles Loom in a Long War

Energy 2014: New Battles Loom in a Long War
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This is the year President Obama could spark a war. And it won't be overseas.

In key states important in a midterm election year, conservative activists and coal country representatives have joined forces to accuse Obama and congressional Democrats who support him of trying shutter an industry. These efforts, Republicans say, are killing jobs and making electricity more expensive for consumers.

"Mr. Obama's actions are a human issue to me," Bob Murray, a West Virginia coal company president, told a Charleston audience last month. "I know the names of those Americans whose jobs and family livelihoods are being destroyed as he appeases his radical environmentalist, unionist, liberal elitist, Hollywood character and other constituencies that got him elected.”

All sides are poised for a noisy battle this coming summer. That’s when they believe the president intends to make a show of melding the government’s regulatory powers to his past rhetoric about reducing man-made carbon emissions.

“I think this is a very different year,” David Goldston, director of government affairs for the National Resources Defense Council, told RCP. “The administration has laid out clear policies with deadlines. Now there’s a plan. They’ve made the substantive decisions, and they’re putting together a team to carry it out.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, basing its determinations on provisions of the 1970 Clean Air Act, wants newly built coal-fired plants to capture, compress and store at least 40 percent of their carbon emissions. That’s technologically possible, but it’s an expensive proposition. The administration’s next and more controversial step -- regulating existing plants -- is expected to unleash a rollicking battle and dominate the public’s focus on Obama’s self-described “all-of-the-above” energy agenda.

By June, the president wants EPA to issue its proposal for restricting pollutants from active coal plants -- the country’s most significant contributors to industrial greenhouse gases. Detractors are revving their talk about Obama’s “war on coal,” which administration officials expect to be reprised in negative campaign ads aimed at Democratic candidates in states that produce or depend on coal for electricity, including Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

But the EPA will not delay publishing proposed new restrictions because elections take place in November, a senior White House official told a group of reporters last week when asked about planning for battle before Election Day.

The president has been content to be a punching bag in this argument. He’s mocked climate-science “deniers,” accused unnamed members of the energy committees on Capitol Hill of being in the pockets of the fossil-fuel industry, and made light of critics who question his embrace of alternative energy sources and new energy technologies to transition away from dirty and imported fuels.

“A lot of our job is to educate the public as to why this can be good for them in a very narrow self-interested way,” Obama told a university audience in August during a town-hall question and answer event. “This is not pie in the sky. This is not tree-hugging, sprout-eating university professors.”

The president has been transparent about his energy ambitions, even as other policy endeavors consumed center stage. Last year, he promoted universal gun background checks and immigration reforms, but wound up with no new laws to show for his efforts. Immigration reform is in the hands of House Republicans, and Obama has charted a new tactical course for 2014, one he says will rely less on Congress and more on his executive authority.

He recognized the need for more autonomous action after Democrats held majorities in both chambers, the House quickly sent a climate and energy package to the Senate in 2009, but the cap-and-trade proposal was blocked there by the 2010 midterm season, a rocky economy, GOP opposition and regional clashes among Democrats.

As Obama launched his second term, he promised environmental supporters he would act. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said during his second inaugural address.

By June, Obama decided to deliver a climate change speech. It received less media attention than environmental activists had hoped, and although it was accompanied by a 21-page White House “action plan,” the action still appeared slated for the future.

The president explained to his Georgetown University audience why he could not wait for Congress, and how some states were already moving ahead without Washington in an effort to curb carbon emissions.

“This is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock,” Obama said. “This is my plan to … cut carbon pollution, a plan to protect our country from the impacts of climate change, and a plan to lead the world in a coordinated assault on a changing climate. This plan begins with cutting carbon pollution by changing the way we use energy: using less dirty energy, using more clean energy, wasting less energy throughout our economy.”

By December, some of the president’s environmental advisers exited for jobs in the private sector. His second-term EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, cleared a partisan Senate confirmation vote in July, succeeding the embattled Lisa Jackson. Obama decided to set his sights on getting his former transition chief, John Podesta, who had been White House chief of staff to Bill Clinton, to return to the West Wing.

Podesta’s arrival this month cheered Democrats and sent a message up and down K Street: On climate (and other endeavors), the president wasn’t just bringing his library books to a knife fight; he wanted heavy artillery.

“Obama is determined to use all the powers he has,” said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning with the Environmental Defense Fund. “And Podesta’s role is important. He’s a master of the timing of such initiatives.”

Inside the iron gates, top Obama aides say they are exultant about Podesta’s arrival, telling reporters his experienced hands are in “everything.” One presidential adviser likened his attributes to those of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

The former president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress is no stranger to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and his White House colleagues say he’s already been coordinating with House and Senate members.

A new Senate Democratic task force on climate change is expected to include blue-state newcomers Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who helped pass the House climate bill in 2009, and former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, now New Jersey’s junior senator, according to a report by Bloomberg BNA.

Planning for another climate change battle is underway in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid wants his members to all be on the same page regarding the administration’s goals. Reid also wants to marshal support from key environmental groups, Democratic donors, and party allies -- and for his side to be well-prepared to meet Republican attacks on energy issues.

But congressional Democrats will not all move in lockstep. West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin last week joined forces with House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky to introduce legislation that would block the administration’s authority to proceed with its proposed power plant emissions limits.

“In the Senate, there will be a vote to try to overturn the limitations,” Golston said. “The administration has to win that vote.”

On Thursday, Administrator McCarthy will review Obama’s climate change plan before the Senate Environment and Public Works panel, and EPA plans a public hearing in Washington about its power plant requirements on Jan. 28, the date of the president’s State of the Union address.

GOP-backed issue-advocacy groups, which have been concentrating since October on the Affordable Care Act, will now expand their targets for political messaging and fundraising in 2014. One of those new bull's-eyes will include EPA’s Clean Air Act regulations; another will be the administration’s pending decision about the Keystone XL pipeline.

On the Democratic side, groups such as the Sierra Club and dozens of other progressive organizations are gearing up for climate-change offense. Advocates and opponents on coal issues have already spent millions of dollars on education and outreach at state and local levels, where EPA’s requirements would have to be implemented.

“Whether you’re campaigning for divestment, transitioning a campus coal plant, preventing

fracking on-campus, fighting tar sands pipelines, or building clean energy solutions, you have a

critical role to play,” Sierra’s Student Coalition materials instructed campus supporters during last fall’s “#ActOnClimate” outreach program, which referenced Obama’s climate plan in its introductory sentence.

At a pro-coal rally at the Capitol in October, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is defending his seat this year and hoping for a Republican majority in 2015, accused the president of creating an economic depression in Eastern Kentucky.

“The war is underway,” he told the applauding crowd standing beneath a blue sky. “This administration has a war on coal. And we intend to fight back.” 

Click here for more coverage from the U.S. Energy Policy: The Road Ahead editorial series.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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