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Derrick Z. Jackson

Obama leaves coal with nowhere to go

The coal-fired Castle Gate Power Plant in Utah was closed in the spring in anticipation of new EPA regulations.REUTERS

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is remarkable, and not just because it gives the United States some global credibility on climate change. The real brilliance is that the proposal — which would cut carbon emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels over the next 10 years — backs the opposition into a corner with no credibility.

Not that coal interests and their apologists, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and attorneys general from coal mining and heavy coal-burning states, won’t put up a loud fight. McConnell said Obama was taking aim at the “lifeblood” of the Kentucky economy. Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general, moaned that the rules were “drawn up by radical bureaucrats” pursuing a “radical, unprecedented regime.”


Arguments against the Clean Power Plan are sure to last well into the next administration and the issue likely will make its way to the Supreme Court. Regardless, there is much to be optimistic about. State by state, project by project, Americans are deciding there is nothing radical about a new regime of renewable energy, cleaner air, and a curb on greenhouse gases.

Six years ago, Obama’s proposal for a national cap-and-trade program was trashed, even by a Democrat-led Senate. This time, the administration honed the rules into a clear bull’s-eye on electricity that’s generated by coal-fired power plants. Cutting carbon emissions by 32 percent effectively means no new coal-fired facilities will be built.

Also, Americans in 2015 better understand that coal is the worst of the common fossil fuels. Power plants that run on it don’t just spew gases that speed climate change. They also create toxins like mercury that eventually show up in wildlife, as well as pollutants that give children asthma.

When Obama took office, coal accounted for about half of the country’s electricity generation. This year, it’s expected to be down to 35 percent, according to the Energy Information Agency. In fact, coal production is at its lowest level in two decades. Employment in the industry has plummeted accordingly. For all its history and lore in Appalachia, and the railing against “job-killing” regulations, the coal industry is now down to 80,000 jobs nationwide. Mining and logging now account for only 3.5 percent of the labor force in West Virginia and less than one percent in Kentucky.


As the coal industry lost 49,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012, according to a Duke University study, the solar and wind industry gained 79,000 jobs. Where once there might have been a solid Republican wall of denial around renewables, the cost of wind power has become so competitive that Iowa, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas now get between 17 percent and 27 percent of their energy from it. Utilities have spent billions of dollars to upgrade transmission lines for wind power in the Midwest and the Southwest. Texas and Arizona are among the top states for solar installations.

Even as Republican candidates for president say they will dismantle Obama’s energy rules if they make it to the White House, many so-called red states are reaping the benefits of the renewable boom. Despite the political vilification of the EPA in some quarters, it’s likely that more states will join in, further eroding any challenges to the rules.

In addition, huge swaths of other industries that once might have been right there with the US Chamber of Commerce and coal companies in fighting new regulations are now competing to have the greenest image. That’s partly because of behind-the-scenes work by Boston-based Ceres. The nonprofit has worked for a quarter-century to convince big businesses to adopt sustainability as a guiding principle. Ceres greeted Obama’s plan with a letter of support signed by 365 companies, including Unilever, Nestle, General Mills, and Staples. Companies such as UPS, Cisco Systems, PepsiCo, United Continental, and General Motors now boast tens of millions of dollars of savings just by meeting their own energy targets.


Add in Obama’s fuel efficiency standards, California’s tough emissions rules, and the long-term success of the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and there is almost nowhere for the coal industry to go to argue its case for pollution.

It took Obama most of his presidency to figure out how to isolate one fossil fuel and finally set America on the path to dealing with climate change. It will take another sturdy presidency to defend his rules. The bet here is that the Clean Power Plan will stick. It will be worth the wait.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at


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