Reactions to Obama's proposal range from 'war on jobs' to visions of opportunity
President Obama declared the debate over climate change obsolete on Tuesday, announcing a wide-ranging plan to cut pollution that could have big ramifications for Western Pennsylvania's growing energy sector.
His administration will impose first-ever regulations on heat-trapping gases from power plants “to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution,” Obama said. He connected that pollution with the dangers of rising seas and extreme weather, touting America's strengths — research, technology and innovation — as factors that can help the country be a world leader in addressing the problem.
Obama's initiatives could bring big change to Pennsylvania, the country's second-biggest electric power generator and its biggest electricity exporter, experts said. Nearly half the state's electricity comes from coal, which produces the most carbon pollution. But the state also is a leader in natural gas production, nuclear power and clean-coal research, all sectors that will benefit from Obama's plan.
“Our region is well-positioned to be a leader,” said Ines Azevedo, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Climate and Energy Decision-Making. “But the right policies and incentives need to be in place for things to move towards a more sustainable direction.”
Obama faces stiff opposition from Republicans in Congress. Obama is trying to sidestep lawmakers and take action through executive branches, mostly the Environmental Protection Agency.
“As a president, as a father and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act,” Obama said. “We don't have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society.”
His plan includes more renewable energy production on federal lands, increased efficiency standards and $8 billion in loans for technology. The linchpin is carbon pollution limits on power plants, which produce 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and a third of greenhouse gases overall, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Gov. Tom Corbett said Pennsylvania companies possess an “all-of-the-above” energy portfolio, from natural gas to nuclear to wind, which are succeeding in energy markets. But the governor criticized the speech for amounting to a “war on coal” and a “war on jobs.”
Environmental groups consider the plan an urgent, even overdue, push to stop climate change and avert rising risks of floods, droughts and storms that it may cause or worsen. Opponents, especially in the coal industry, challenged the premise and warned the plan could undercut important economic sectors.
About 80 percent of coal mined in Pennsylvania goes to power plants, which would be hard-pressed to comply with stringent emissions standards, said John Pippy, a former state senator who is CEO of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance. It could throw 3,000 of the state's 9,000 coal miners out of work, especially hurtful in Greene, Fayette, Westmoreland and Indiana counties, he said.
“Today's announcement simply does not align with our economic or national security interests,” Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc., one of the country's largest coal and gas companies, said in an emailed statement. Consol said the plan “ignores this stark reality and advocates policies that induce more expensive energy.”
Obama's plan is so general right now that it's hard to accurately gauge implications on a local level, several experts said. That will become easier when the EPA drafts rule proposals months from now, experts said.
Some supporters believe lost power from coal will cause replacement industries to rise. Companies have proposed nine natural gas-burning power plants in Pennsylvania, in large part because of the region's bounty of Marcellus shale gas. NRG Energy Inc. on Monday said it would convert its Lawrence County plant from coal to gas to keep from closing it.
“(Obama) talked a lot more about shale than I thought he would,” said Aimee Curtright, a physical scientist at RAND Corp.'s Oakland office who has studied the impacts of gas. “If natural gas is how we're going to get to where we're going, then that has huge implications for us” in Western Pennsylvania.
Curtright and others noted Obama touted clean-coal technology. Much of that research into capturing and holding CO2 from coal power has happened at federal labs in South Park and Morgantown.
Cranberry-based Westinghouse may stand to gain, too. Nuclear sources supply almost two-thirds of the nation's “carbon-free” energy, meaning the country can't accomplish Obama's goals without using more nuclear power, the Nuclear Energy Institute said in a statement.
Another core element of Obama's plan is to stop federal financing of coal-fired plants overseas. He wants to expand initiatives that will cut emissions in large polluting countries, especially China and India. After the announcement, Westinghouse lauded the government's help in pursuing nuclear business in India.
Across the electric power industry, businesses know they have choices to make, said Jake Smeltz, president of the Electric Power Generation Association, a Harrisburg-based industry group. He called the plan a culmination of seven significant environmental policy initiatives the Obama administration began in 2009.
“Every rule is a critical moment,” Smeltz said, noting the industry knows it can be treated the same as other industrial producers. “There's a societal element, and that societal element cannot be ignored.”
Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press and staff writer Thomas Olson contributed.