Maine’s top Republicans face a dilemma: Will they side with their state or with Big Coal?
By Alan Caron
Portland Press Herald op-ed
A major fight is about to break out in Washington over whether coal-fired power plants, particularly in the Midwest, will need to reduce pollution and climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions. It may well become the greatest showdown between environmentalists and the coal industry since the Clean Air Act revisions of 1990.
The battle will have huge implications for Maine, which sits in the downwind tailpipe of coal-burning plants in the industrial heartland of the upper Midwest. That’s one reason why 10 percent of Maine adults now suffer from asthma, and asthma rates have doubled over the last three decades.
That has easily cost us hundreds of premature deaths, millions of hours of lost work time and hundreds of millions of dollars in added health-related expenses.
This battle will have more immediate effects, though, in congressional races across the country this fall. It turns out that for Democrats, having a real dust-up about climate change and coal pollution is not only good policy, it’s probably also good politics, since it’s likely to energize environmental allies across the country, just in time for the November elections.
What’s the big fuss about? Three weeks ago, President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a plan to reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions from coal fired power plants. It would require those plants, by 2030, to reduce CO2 emissions by about 16 percent from 2012 levels, taking emissions from 2 billion tons a year to 1.68 billion tons.
Those are modest but achievable goals, but you wouldn’t guess that by listening to the shrill panic of Big Coal and its allies in Congress, who seem convinced that any regulation of coal will swiftly produce the end of civilization as we know it.
Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi delivered the weekly Republican radio message a few weeks ago, and breathlessly claimed that Obama “has set out to kill coal and its 800,000 jobs.” Wyoming produces about 40 percent of the country’s coal.
Meanwhile, tea party Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, who seem determine to exterminate the federal government as soon as possible, are now openly talking about attaching killer amendments to spending bills, which would have the effect of shutting down government to save coal producers and power plants from any discomfort.
So the battle lines are being drawn, once again, over who should pay the price of pollution. To those who are old enough to have lived through the alarmism that surrounded the adoption of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Clean Air Act of 1970 and its amendments in 1990, this is going to sound like deja vu all over again.
That’s because the arguments against reducing coal use are identical to the ones made against those earlier, landmark achievements, which were led by Maine Sen. Ed Muskie and later, Sen. George Mitchell. Come to think of it, these arguments were also used against the bottle bill and countless other attempts to protect the landscape and the health of Maine people.
In every case, special interests and their allies in government tried to kill sensible anti-pollution action by scaring the daylights out of people who are barely getting by. “It may stink,” they’d say, “but that’s the smell of money.”
With the passage of time since those battles, we can now easily separate outlandish fear-mongering from actual facts. Despite all the dire warnings about the 1990 Clean Air Act revisions, for instance, a 2011 EPA report found that the benefits of the Clean Air Act “exceeded costs by a factor of 30 to 1.”
Some people are always fooled by these gloom-and-doom tactics, of course, but the good news is that the public has been wising up to these tactics. And on climate change, in particular, polling now shows that a majority of Americans, in every part of the country, want action.
This upcoming fight will put Republican politicians like Sen. Susan Collins and Gov. Paul LePage in a tough spot. Will they side with Maine or support Big Coal?
Collins has long spoken out on these issues, and though it will be difficult if she has to stand against her own caucus on this matter, I’m confident she’ll do the right thing for Maine.
But what about LePage? His obsession with low-cost energy, regardless of the long-term environmental costs, is going to put him in a pickle. Will he side with the people of Maine or rise to the defense of the downtrodden coal industry in Kentucky and Wyoming?
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy, and the co-author of an upcoming book called “Maine’s Next Economy.”