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June 25, 2013

What Obama's Climate Announcement Means for Coal and Clean Energy

Rally
A crowd rallied in support of President Obama's climate plan outside his speech today at Georgetown University.

If you're reading this post, then you are part of the last generation of people who will have the chance to stop runaway climate disruption. Coal-fired power plants are the nation's single biggest source of the carbon pollution that threatens our kids' future, and today President Obama made an announcement that puts us a big step closer to turning the corner on climate change - and has big implications for coal and clean energy.

Today, as the centerpiece of his roadmap for tackling the climate crisis, President Obama announced that the Environmental Protection Agency will issue carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, with a revised draft standard for new plants expected this September, and for existing plants in June of 2014, with a commitment to finalize the standards before the end of Obama's second term. 

These safeguards have been more than a decade in the making, and are a huge milestone in the fight to curb carbon pollution. With climate change now landing on the doorsteps of millions of Americans - from wildfires and droughts to derechos and superstorms - we don't have a minute to waste.

Now, it's up to all of us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to ensure our Environmental Protection Agency proposes the strongest possible protections for carbon pollution from power plants. The choice is in our hands - will we take a wrecking ball to our climate and threaten the very safety of the world in which our children will grow up, or will we actually leave them a better world than the one we inherited from our parents?

Here's how the President put it today: "As a President, as a father, and as an American, I choose to act on climate. Speak up if you do, too."

Over the past decade, in partnership with over 100 partner groups, we've done something no one thought was possible: stopped the rush to build 200 new coal plants (we've stopped 179 to date), won the retirement of 147 (and counting) of the nation's 520 existing coal plants, and opened up markets for record amounts of clean energy. Five years ago the U.S. was getting 50 percent of our electricity from coal - by 2012 that had dropped to 37 percent. As a result, U.S. carbon emissions are at a two-decade low, we will prevent 3,600 deaths and save $1.7 billion in health care costs linked to air pollution every year, and the coal industry is no longer in a position to hold our democracy hostage, as they did when they killed federal climate legislation back in 2010.

A central part of our ongoing efforts has been working to close pollution loopholes that the coal industry has enjoyed for far too long, for a witches' brew of dangerous pollutants including mercury, arsenic, sulfur, and carbon. As President Obama said in his speech today, "Power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That's not right, that's not safe, and it needs to stop."

Our work on carbon from power plants dates back to 2002, when a lawsuit forced the EPA, for the first time, to consider setting standards that limit greenhouse gasses. The EPA's denial of this petition ultimately led to the landmark case of Massachusetts v. EPA, where the Supreme Court held that greenhouse gasses (like carbon dioxide) are pollutants under the Clean Air Act and the EPA must take steps to limit them from our air. Massachusetts v. EPA included support from more than two dozen environmental groups and U.S states and territories, including the Sierra Club.

In 2009, the EPA released their Endangerment Finding, which used scientific, peer-reviewed research to show that greenhouse gasses endanger human health and welfare. In April 2012, the EPA proposed carbon standards for new power plants, with standards for existing plants expected to follow. Over the subsequent months the public health and environmental community worked to turn out hundreds of people to public hearings, submit extensive technical comments and provide the lion's share of the more than three million public comments that were submitted in support of the standards.

Unfortunately, the EPA missed its April 2013 deadline to finalize the standards for new power plants, and the Sierra Club, NRDC and EDF submitted a 60 day notice of intent to sue if the EPA didn't finalize the standards. With the renewed strength of a clear endorsement of the importance of these standards from the President, we plan to continue our legal and other strategies in support of the President's plan.

Now, with the President's announcement of a path forward for finalizing the carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants, we can finally protect American families from this dangerous air pollution. Opponents of this standard have already launched what will be an aggressive and unrelenting push to block this action, and so we will need a broad, deep, sustained, and robust effort over the coming years to push EPA to issue strong standards, and then to defend those protections from certain attack.

The power plant standards are only one part of the President's roadmap. The White House also announced it will:

  • End U.S. financing for new conventional coal plants internationally, through lending institutions like the World Bank.
  • Double renewable energy generation by 2020, including setting aggressive goals for installing renewable energy on military bases and federally subsidized housing.
  • Set stronger energy efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings.
  • Reduce barriers to investment in energy efficiency.

There is still more work to be done. The President's climate commitment also gives us hope that he will finally address some of the remaining, worst abuses of the coal industry not covered in this plan, including ending the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in my home region of Appalachia, and overhauling the sweetheart deal for coal on public lands that pads the bottom line of coal companies, at public expense.

I've worked for more than a decade to rein in coal pollution and avert a climate crisis, and I truly believe the President's announcement gives us our best chance yet to turn the corner on climate disruption, save thousands of lives threatened by coal pollution, and usher in the clean energy era. But we will only seize this moment if we join together and do the finest work of our lives. This is a moment that demands nothing less.

All told, the President's plan is inspiring, and it rises to the challenge of climate disruption and puts the President on track to leave a proud legacy of making the world safer for all our children. It also calls for the best from all of us. Today the President called on us to stand up ourselves, and to "broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future." I hope you will join us in doing that critical work in the months and years ahead.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Director

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