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Attorneys trace lineage of Obama's 'war on coal' to earlier administrations

Accusing the Obama administration of waging a war on coalmay serve as an effective rallying cry in coal-producing states, but the peoplemaking the claim either are intentionally misleading their constituents or lacka clear understanding of the history of the Clean Air Act, according to a pairof environmental law experts.

Each of the three major "fronts" in PresidentBarack Obama's so-called war oncoal — the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, the Mercury and AirToxics Standards and the Clean Power Plan — can trace its lineage to previouspresidential administrations, Republican and Democratic, and the dawn of modernenvironmental policy, Richard Revesz and Jack Lienke write in their new book, Strugglingfor Air: Power Plants and the "War on Coal," published byOxford University Press.

"The basic narrative here is that President Obama tookoffice in 2009 and pretty much immediately set about imposing all sorts ofonerous and unprecedented restrictions on the use of coal. And this is verymisleading," Lienke, a senior attorney at the Institute for PublicIntegrity at the New York University School of Law, said April 5 at a booklaunch event hosted by Resources for the Future, a nonprofit researchorganization in Washington, D.C.

Of these three major regulations that opponents havecharacterized as a war on coal, none was entirely pursued at the discretion ofthe Obama administration, Revesz and Lienke write in the book. CSAPR was a "necessary"replacement for the George W. Bush administration's Clean Air Interstate Rule,which was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of ColumbiaCircuit and was left in place only to give the EPA time to develop asubstitute, they explain.

The MATS rule was crafted to replace a rule developed underthe George W. Bush administration, the Clean Air Mercury Rule, that the D.C.Circuit had vacated. The Obama administration would have had difficulty notissuing its own mercury rule, given the EPA's previous findings that powerplants were the largest source of mercury pollution in the country and thatsuch pollution was a threat to public health and the environment, they write.


Source: Oxford University Press

The EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions underthe Clean Power Plan was "similarly preordained" by the 2007 SupremeCourt decision, Massachusetts v. EPA, which said theagency must consider greenhouse gas emission as pollutants, according to theattorneys. Once the EPA took steps to regulate greenhouse gas emissions fromcars and trucks after the 2007 court decision, the agency did not have apersuasive defense against a lawsuit seeking to compel it to do the same forpower plants, they argue.

Observers should be able to recognize that these three rules"weren't really the Obama administration's idea, not entirely,"Lienke said in his comments at the Resources for the Future event. "It'sunderstandable that the Obama administration doesn't really want to shout thispart from the rooftops. If you're thinking legacy, you want to say, 'I did moreto protect the environment than any president in history,' not, 'I took someincremental steps to further regulatory efforts that were set in motion by pastpresidents.'"

But in the current anti-environmental regulation politicalenvironmental, incremental steps are far from an insignificant contribution, headded.

The authors also expressed support for efforts to helpcommunities across the U.S. affected by a decline in coal production. "Thetransition from coal to gas or from coal and gas to renewables also hasenormously positive effects in decreasing conventional pollutants. … Both onthe climate change side and on the health side, the net benefits are in thetens of billions of dollars," Revesz said at the book launch event. "Thisdoesn't mean that every group in our society is going to benefit from thisrule. And it is definitely the case that coal-mining communities are going tobe hurt by it."

Revesz, a professor of law at the New York University Schoolof Law where he directs the Institute for Policy Integrity, described asextremely "cynical" the lack of interest by Republicans in Congressto provide compensation for coal communities. "The president has put fortha program. The Clinton campaign has. The Sanders campaign has. No Republican inCongress. No Republican presidential candidate," he said. "Why don'tthey do it? The reason they don't do it is because they want to hold thesecommunities hostage. They think that basically by holding these communitieshostage, they can defeat the Clean Power Plan and deprive the country ofenormous health, environmental and climate change benefits."

In 2015, two U.S. House members reached across the aisle topartner on legislation that would offer various forms of assistance todisplaced workers who have lost their jobs in the ailing coal sector. Reps.David McKinley, R-W.Va., and Peter Welch, D-Vt., introduced the Healthy Employee Loss Prevention Act toprovide assistance to eligible workers with retraining, job searches andrelocations. The bill was referred to the Committee on Education and theWorkforce, as well as the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, but didnot get out of either committee.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has vowedto "bring the coal industry back" but has not provided details on howthe coal industry might experience a renaissance if he wins the White House.

Revesz pointed to legislation in 2012, by House Republicans, thatwould have blocked federal regulations from going into effect until theunemployment rate drops to 6% or less. "So basically we would allow theloss of one job hold hostage potentially a large number of lives. So it wouldbe worse to have one unemployed person than potentially thousands of deadpeople. That was the implication of this kind of legislation," he said.