01/15/2009 05:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Spin Room

Just how green is the new Obama team, anyway? If you read the Wall Street Journal, you might think that King Coal was back on top of the roost. The Journal did a piece this morning headed  "Coal Industry Digs Itself Out of a Hole in the Capitol." (I was interviewed for the piece and am quoted.) But the headline writer seems to have gotten out ahead of the story and the facts. The article points out that both EPA nominee Lisa Jackson and Energy Secretary designate Steven Chu described coal as a part of America's energy future, even though Chu, in particular, has been much harsher in comments he made before his appointment. It also says that in doing so Jackson and Chu were trying to "steer towards the center."

But the comments Chu and Jackson made were simply restatements of President-elect Obama's positions during his campaign. Obama always agreed that coal has a future -- if it can be clean, including cleaning up its CO2. But what the Journal (and most of the media) has missed is that truly clean coal is actually the coal industry's worst nightmare, not its salvation. Because if and when scientists figure out a scalable and affordable way to get the CO2 out of the flue gases emitted by coal-fired power plants, public utilities burning coal will be expected to use that technology. And right now they're not even willing  to use the air pollution devices we already have to clean up sulfur, nitrogen, particulates, and mercury from their old power plants.

And far from digging coal out of the deeper hole created by the disaster at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, the events of the week have been anything but kind. What did Jackson actually say in her hearing about the policies she will pursue? Well, she virtually committed herself to adopting federal regulation of coal ash, something the Clinton administration refused to do back in 2000. She also said that "Much of the initial agenda for the EPA administrator and EPA is now set by court decisions," and specifically cited the Supreme Court's April 2007 opinion giving the EPA the obligation to use the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2. She then went on to say exactly what the coal industry feared: "The Supreme Court has ordered EPA to make a finding, and EPA has yet to do it. When the finding happens, when EPA makes a decision on endangerment, let me put it that way, it will indeed trigger the regulation of CO2 for this country." She didn't say "if" that finding happens -- she said "when."

The Bush administration, of course, has hung its whole approach to the problem on ignoring that Supreme Court ruling -- as well as a subsequent EPA Environmental Appeals Board ruling that, yes, the Supreme Court ruling applies to coal-fired power plants. So today the Sierra Club filed what will be one of our final lawsuits against George Bush, challenging EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson's last-minute issuance of an "interpretive memorandum" instructing the Agency to ignore its own Administrative Law Judges. "EPA Administrator Steve Johnson has acted in brazen defiance our nation's highest court, Congress, his own staff and the law for years," said David Bookbinder, Sierra Club's Chief Climate Counsel. "In a new twist, he is now openly and unlawfully ignoring EPA's own judges in order to protect polluters in the waning days of a dangerously irrelevant administration."

If the coal industry really wants to make coal clean, they still have time -- but so far, there's no evidence that they've learned anything in the past eight years.