11/05/2010 07:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Empire Fights Back

Yesterday I wrote about post-election challenge #1 -- helping states that have not yet begun to reap the fruits of a clean-energy future get on the bandwagon with concrete government policies designed to help energy innovators win. But we also need to play a strong defensive game, because coal and oil are going to try to strike back. They'll try to block, of course, any federal government action to reduce carbon pollution or to respond to the threat of climate disruption. Many of the incoming Republican members of Congress have taken the position that global warming isn't real, that even if it is real it isn't caused by pollution, and that even if it is real and it is caused by pollution, North Dakota could use more beach resorts anyway.

But important as that battle is, it's not their real objective. The coal and oil interests understand that although the American people see climate change as a long-term problem that they would like to see solved but that might not get solved right away, there are other threats for which the public is much less tolerant. Coal-fired power plants, for example, are responsible for almost half the mercury that is polluting our fisheries -- at a time when one young American woman in six has a level of mercury in her body that could threaten any child she bears. Living near a coal-ash disposal site -- as millions of Americans do -- can be more toxic than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Overall the health costs of poorly regulated coal burning are $100 billion a year, and 14,000 Americans die annually as a consequence of unregulated pollution.

Oil brings its own set of problems. Communities near refineries suffer the same kind of toxic air pollution as those near coal plants. But as we saw last summer, a huge part of the risk from oil comes from the wellhead -- blowouts that like the one that devastated communities on the Gulf of Mexico are unusual for the U.S., but they happen routinely elsewhere around the world as oil companies produce for the U.S. market in the cheapest way they can in countries like Nigeria. Every year, as Boone Pickens likes to point out, America ships about half a trillion dollars of our wealth, and three million American jobs, overseas to pay for our oil imports.

Action on these critical health, environmental, economic, and national security risks is vital -- and would remain equally vital -- even if climate change were not a looming and urgent threat. And while the combination of Fox News, coal and oil campaign funding, and Tea Party climate denial has managed to turn climate change into a partisan and controversial issue, Americans of all ideologies and both parties want pollution cleaned up, industry held accountable, and oil imports slashed.

The dark and dirty secret that John Boehner and his colleagues don't want Americans to know is that they want to take the country back to the eight long years of the Bush administration -- a time when clean air and water laws were simply not enforced and America's addiction to foreign oil was regularly stoked through actions like delaying new efficiency rules for vehicles, granting exemptions from the Clean Water Act, offering get-out-of-jail-free cards for oil spills, and declaring amnesty for royalties on oil extracted from public lands. But even though it's clear that coal and oil, and the new House leadership, are desperate to go back to the Bush era, they face one major barrier -- President Obama. For the past two years, he has been restoring the integrity of government science and government environmental enforcement. He is far from finishing the job, but he is determined to set policy based on science and law, not political favors.

So what can the newly invigorated fossil-fuel lobby do?

Well, they have some tools. Congress could -- if the President went along -- block enforcement of the law through what are called "appropriations riders," often-secretive provisions attached to, say, an EPA appropriations bill saying things like, "no money appropriated for the fiscal year 2010 may be used to enforce regulations protecting the public from toxic exposure to coal ash." (Actually, they read more like "no money may be spent to enforce regulations under section 114 J of the Clean Water Act. But their real meaning is better illustrated by my first example.)

Or Congress could use one of Newt Gingrich's legacies, the Congressional Review Act (CRA) under which Congress -- again, only if the President goes along -- can suspend a newly enacted rule.

Or, lacking the votes to legally block enforcement of the law, Congress could refuse to confirm presidential appointees until the White House agrees to stop enforcing the law. Or it could create a living hell for the environmental cops on the beat by instigating investigations of their actions to enforce the law.

Why would coal and oil want this as their big "ask" from the newly emboldened House majority? One simple reason: Coal and oil, if held accountable for the full cost of their activities, aren't competitive anymore. The only way they can retain their grip on the American -- and global -- economy is through bailouts. If we really insisted on "clean oil" and "clean coal," we would end up with a lot more energy performance, a lot more renewables, and a lot less coal and oil, period.

Those fuel sources should have been replaced by something cleaner long ago. But only now, assuming that President Obama is willing to enforce pollution laws, does it look like it might actually happen.

But it won't happen easily. Coal and oil will fight back, and they'll fight back hard. So if you thought the bailouts under Bush of AIG were outrageous --better fasten your seat belt. We're headed for some big and important battles.