Obama on right course to tackle coal pollution issue

The OlympianJune 27, 2013 

President Barack Obama announced a bold new plan this week to slow the pace of climate change by cutting carbon dioxide emissions at home and around the world. A three-word summation of his plan might read: use less coal.

Power plants produce 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution, and most of them burn coal. Globally, the reliance on coal increases, so Obama is cutting right to the heart of our climate-change problem.

The nation’s first-ever comprehensive strategy to address climate change that Obama announced Tuesday features two key elements.

One, decrease domestic coal consumption by setting carbon emission limits for existing and future power-generating plants. It’s shocking that power plants can pump unlimited carbon pollutants into our air.

Two, decrease international coal use by eliminating U.S. federal aid previously spent to build new coal plants in other countries. One study estimates there are more than 1,000 coal-fired plants under construction around the world.

Obama’s focus on coal could mean good news for the Northwest on another front. The president’s plan casts serious doubt on the merits of pursuing coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon. If we’re going to discourage the use of coal in China, for example, why would we make the fossil fuel more accessible?

The president stopped short of calling for the comprehensive environmental review of the coal export terminal projects jointly requested by Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

We wish he had specifically addressed this issue. But Obama’s plan to broker initiatives that reduce carbon emissions in Asia and other global regions certainly does not support shipping 100 million tons of the dirty fossil fuel annually to China where plants will convert it into 240 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.

Washington and Oregon are not unaffected bystanders in Asian environmental policies. Most of the mercury contamination found in the Columbia River Basin comes from coal-burning plants in Asia, and primarily China.

The Olympia City Council recently joined other cities along the coastal areas of the two states in passing resolutions opposing construction of coal export facilities in Longview and Bellingham, and another one in Oregon. The cities are focused on the massive quantities of open-top rail cars filled with coal that could travel up and down the Puget Sound coastline.

One study estimates the export terminals would double the number of trains rumbling through Spokane from 60 to 120 per day, causing widespread traffic issues throughout the state’s railroad crossings.

Critics fear pollution from drifting coal dust from the uncovered coal cars and increased diesel emissions to move the fossil fuel may erase the state’s hard-fought gains in air quality. They also point to the potential marine dangers from hundreds of single-hulled cargo vessels navigating the channels of Rosario and Haro straits.

Obama intends to bypass a deadlocked Congress and implement his plan through executive order. He has no choice. A court ruling that carbon dioxide is a pollutant requires the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict power plant emissions, but it has failed to act. Obama’s plan might postpone another pending lawsuit forcing the EPA to develop limits.

The coal industry will try to derail the plan with lawsuits. Republicans will oppose it on principle. And the rest of the world will wonder why it’s taken America so long.

A Pew Research poll shows that while Americans consider climate change the world’s sixth-greatest threat to our existence, the rest of the world ranks it number one.

It’s time we caught up, and the president has put us on the right track.

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