Let's Defend The Climate Change Bill

Massive coal lobby threatens nation's chance for a clean energy future

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The Senate, perhaps inadvertently, has given the American public a chance to help counter a massive assault by the fossil fuel industry on our nation’s best hope to fight climate change and forge a clean energy future—the American Climate and Energy Security Act.

The mission of ACES is historic and essential: drive the transition to a clean energy economy with millions of new jobs and dramatically reduce carbon emissions to avert the worst impacts of climate change. It could enable the United States to play a powerful leadership role in global climate negotiations later this year.

But, though well intentioned, the legislation suffered at the hands of fossil fuel lobbyists in its passage through the House of Representatives, and even its champions acknowledge that some of the concessions in the bill may hamper its effectiveness. Now, in the Senate, it faces even more attacks on its integrity from lobbyists led by coal.

Fortunately, though, the Senate has postponed until September its consideration of ACES, giving time for citizens, the environmental community and President Barack Obama to join in the effort to defend and strengthen this legislation.

The stakes could not be higher. President Obama describes ACES as "a good start," but given the political realities it may be all we can expect on climate change for many years to come. That puts tremendous pressure on the president—and the environmental community—to get it right this time.

Earthjustice’s biggest concern is a loophole that exempts coal-burning utilities from changing their ways for at least 15 years. This means that the nation’s biggest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions can keep on polluting—and expanding—even as other industries are forced to clamp down. As engineered by massive coal industry lobbying, the loophole "grandfathers" in the existing, dirtiest coal plants, making them exempt from C02 limits under the Clean Air Act. Forty-three new coal plants planned or being built in the next five years would escape the bill’s performance standards.

The enormous giveaways extracted by the coal industry’s well-heeled lobby will allow dirty coal plants to supply nearly half of our electricity through at least 2025 according to EPA. Yet to achieve the carbon reductions that are needed by mid-century, we must start building a new clean energy infrastructure now. With old coal dominating the power market for decades to come, we will not see the investment in renewable energy that is critical both to the creation of a vibrant green economy and preservation of the planet as we know it.

Coal knows that its historical role as king of electricity generation is at stake because it is the major driver of climate change. Its leaders understand that effective legislation must put us on a path to replacing coal. Given that, it’s understandable why the industry is fighting so hard to gut ACES.

With a massive lobbying effort, coal has outspent, outhustled and outmuscled its environmental and clean energy competition. In the first two quarters this year, the coal mining industry spent $6.8 million on lobbying. Another $71 million was spent by utilities that mostly use coal. Natural gas—the second biggest electricity generator—spent only a fraction of coal’s expenditure in the first quarter, and suddenly awoke last week, vowing to pour money into lobbying efforts to carve out its own concessions in the Senate bill.

All of this means that we in the environmental community must speak up and convince our senators that effective legislation cannot give coal a free pass and put the bill’s effectiveness in jeopardy. Old coal plants should have a deadline to clean up or shut down, allowing our energy needs to be met by cleaner, prosperity-creating alternatives. This is the message that you can send now by going to a special action alert page Earthjustice has set up. I encourage you to take this action now.

But, President Obama also must act. He must use his bully pulpit to bring the nation and this planet into the debate. Now is the time for the strongest possible support from the White House and the strongest message from all of us. Nothing less is likely to offset the steady drumbeat of fossil fuel interests fighting to keep the status quo.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”