You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Attacking Obama's Climate Plan Won't Save America's Dying Coal Industry

Alex Wong/Getty Images

For years, Republicans have attacked President Barack Obama for waging a war on coal. In fact, for much of the Environmental Protection Agency’s existence, they’ve offered doomsday predictions that any regulations on coal would make the lights go out. It was little surprise, then, that on Monday, minutes before Obama entered the East Room of the White House to lay out his historic plan to rein in carbon emissions from power plants, Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor to castigate the proposal.

“I am not going to sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy,” the Kentucky senator said. The new regulations, he argued, would mean “fewer jobs, shuttered power plants, and higher electricity costs for families and businesses.”

McConnell vowed to fight the Clean Power Plan, which requires a 32-percent cut in power plant pollution over 2005 levels by 2030, with all the tools at his disposal—from legislative maneuvers to lawsuits. And he's supported by the fossil fuel industry, which has predictably piled on to the criticism.

The Environmental Protection Agency " is pursuing an illegal plan that will drive up electricity costs and put people out of work," Mike Duncan, the president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a statement on Sunday, after details of Obama's plan were teased. The country's largest privately held coal company, Murray Energy, promised to file multiple lawsuits against the new rule.

Reaction from the oil and gas industry has been more mixed. The American Petroleum Institute said in a statement that it “opposes the rule because it oversteps the authority given to the EPA under the Clean Air Act.” Even as it registered its complaint, the oil lobby tellingly didn't pledge to fight the proposal. And the plan gives natural gas a boost, even if it isn’t as much as the industry would like. "We are confident about the role that natural gas can and will play in America's clean power future," America’s Natural Gas Alliance commented.

Certainly, Obama's climate plan will have an impact on the coal industry. Under the new regulations, coal will eventually support just 27 percent of the nation’s power grid, down from almost 40 percent today. Yet Republicans' war on coal rhetoric seems increasingly tired. Coal hasn't been king for a long time, and scuttling Obama's regulations will do little to revive the industry.

In 2008, when Obama took office, almost 18,000 coal miners were employed in Kentucky, 14,000 of them in Eastern Kentucky. Today, fewer than 6,000 miners remain in the region. Yet the real cause of the industry's decline isn't Obama. It's the free market that Republicans love to embrace. As renewables and natural gas have driven coal prices down, coal jobs have shifted away from Central Appalachia, where coal is more expensive, to Wyoming, where it is cheaper to mine. Mining coal is simply no longer an economically viable option in Kentucky.

While McConnell is busy defending the coal industry's honor, the White House is taking steps to assist miners. In February, the administration proposed a stimulus for coal country in its 2016 budget, which would include job training for laid-off workers and investments in health care and retirement security for miners and their families. Congress will need to act to move this plan forward, but the Republican majority has shown little interest in the aid. Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear supports the initiative, saying in February, we “look forward to its approval by Congress and implementation in the coming months.” Kentucky is still waiting for McConnell to act on it.

“Even as they ignore my plan to actually invest in revitalizing coal country and retraining those workers for better paying jobs and healthier jobs,” Obama said on Monday, taking aim at McConnell and his other critics. “I want to work with Congress to help them. Not to use them as political football.”

McConnell has made it clear, however, that Congress won't work with the president. The war on coal is a mirage, but the GOP's war on the EPA and Obama is real, and it's still going strong.