Having failed to get the Democrats’ cap-and-trade scheme through Congress, President Obama intends to create it through fiat, with the Environmental Protection Agency scheduled to issue today what amounts to a bill of attainder against coal-fired electricity generators. The regulation will set a national limit on greenhouse-gas emissions from coal plants and then offer states a phony menu of choices for meeting that standard, stacking the policy deck in such a way as to force them into cap-and-trade programs administered by multistate cartels.
It is far from obvious that the Obama administration has anything like the legal authority for this; until quite recently, the White House seemed to think that it was necessary for Congress — remember Congress, the lawmaking branch of government? — to pass a law creating a cap-and-trade program, but, having lost that vote, President Obama is pressing on in rule-by-decree mode, apparently having mistaken himself for Charles de Gaulle.
But set aside, arguendo, niggling questions about whether President Obama is once again running roughshod over the Constitution, the separation of powers, and the American model of government. Instead, ask yourself whether this sort of program is going to be successful exclusively on the terms of its own internal logic. If the purpose of capping greenhouse-gas emissions is to prevent global warming, then this program, far from reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, is just as likely to increase those emissions.
There are two fundamental realities that the administration is committed to ignoring. One is that, even if we swallow whole the most alarmist version of the global-warming story, the phenomenon is inescapably a global one. In order for the United States to make national cuts that are of global significance, they would have to be substantially larger than anything under current consideration, and reducing emissions from coal-fired plants exclusively would be nowhere near sufficient. And that assumes that the rest of the world stands still, which is unlikely to be the case in consideration of the second reality: Coal does not care where it is burned. If we reduce demand for coal in the United States by substituting other fuels in our electricity plants, that does not transform a corresponding sum of the world’s coal deposits into fairy dust. It will still be coal, and it will still be useful for producing electricity elsewhere. Reducing the amount of coal consumed by relatively clean-burning U.S. plants is much more likely to increase the amount of coal consumed by relatively dirty plants in Asia and Africa than it is to reduce coal consumption across the board. Coal is a mobile commodity; reducing demand for it here will only make it less expensive abroad.
Which is to say: This is an emissions-reduction program that is as likely to increase emissions as to reduce them, if not more likely.
Given the facts, we must consider the possibility that this is not about global warming at all but is instead simply another tax, and a relatively large one, that will be used to underwrite favors for Democratic interest groups while creating corporate subsidies for politically connected businesses — namely, those liberal financiers who have large financial positions in so-called clean-energy technologies and stand to make a hefty profit from government mandates for renewables.
Come for the feel-good greenwashing, stay for the corporate welfare.
U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions are down significantly in recent years, thanks largely to two important developments: First, plentiful and relatively cheap fuel has emerged in the form of fracked natural gas; second, in a less happy development, Washington has kneecapped the American economy, which is currently in retreat, reducing demand for electricity from large industrial and manufacturing concerns.
The Obama administration is proceeding with scant consideration for the real costs of this program; the cost of energy for consumers should be a large concern, but perhaps even more important is the cost of energy to manufacturers and other enterprises. Putting those firms at a competitive disadvantage means less investment, less economic growth, and fewer jobs. If you think it’s hard paying your electricity bill now, wait until you’re unemployed. Targeting coal specifically is partly ideological and partly political payback to an industry that has not shown much deference to the current administration’s preferences.
The use of coal involves significant environmental consequences. So does the use of wind, solar, gas, and every energy source short of wishful thinking. If Washington wants to enact new restrictions, then the way to do that is by passing a law, which means putting it to a vote in the House and the Senate, whose members are directly politically accountable to voters, rather than treating the EPA as a super-legislature. And responsible consideration of any such program would demand a sober assessment of the costs (heavy) and global-warming benefits (illusory) to be had. Considerations of process and substance both argue strongly against imposing this ill-considered exercise in ideology and self-interest through decree. And with states already lining up their legal briefs, it is certain that a long fight will ensue. The EPA will not be on the ballot in November, but this issue can and should be.