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Ensuring Coal's Future (to Kill)? Questions for Sen. John Kerry from the Coal Wars Frontlines

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Who can't admire Sen. John Kerry's determination to bring some sort of climate and clean energy legislation to the Senate? (Let's put aside Sen. Joe Lieberman for the moment.) As Kerry reminds us in his HuffPost blog today, the Senator from Massachusetts held hearings on climate change 22 years ago. And Kerry reminds any naysayers among the Green readers at Grist:

But our planet can't wait for the perfect bill. We need to get a really good bill now, one that reduces carbon pollution and puts us on a path to a clean energy future. And if we do this, I know we can get a tough international agreement to deal with this global problem. Those are the two things I remind myself of every day when it comes to this bill. You've got to keep your eye on the prize. Bottom-line -- we're at a crossroads. On one path is clean energy, a more stable climate, and a more prosperous economy with America back in control of our own energy generating good clean energy jobs. On the other is the status quo which is unsustainable.

Fair enough. But the question will also remain: In the meantime, who is going to pay the immediate price for political compromise?

I wondered about that question today as I read one of the major planks in the legislation summary: Ensuring Coal's Future

"Ensuring Coal's Future" is part of our clean energy future?

Not for coalfield residents.

Aware of a slumping and declining market, black lung-afflicted coal miners and the mourning families of betrayed coal miners at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia also must wonder about this question and its lack of answers. Residents in the economically and environmentally devastated coalfields---the national sacrifice zones allowed by Congress--already understand the answer to this question, as do ailing residents surrounded by coal-fired plants and unregulated coal ash dumps.

In a line: Kerry knows that coal kills. So, are we going to phase out our deadly old coal-fired plants (and deadly coal mining) by a certain date -- or just add more regulations?

The unveiling of his well-meaning and roll-up-your-sleeves American Power Act legislative package today is certainly a step toward reducing our CO2 emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 2005 levels at 2050--albeit far short of what most scientists deem critical to step from the abyss of irreversible climate destabilization.

Kerry, in his HuffPost blog today, is even candid about the bill's pander to Big Coal-controlled politicians in the Midwest:

There's very tough politics in the Senate, no doubt. But we've made sure that states and Senators that have been uncomfortable with this issue for decades have an unprecedented opportunity to take part in the new, clean energy economy and that's why we make strong investments in clean coal technology.

His legislation pours $2 billion a year down the black hole of the prohibitively expensive and still infeasiblecarbon capture and storage technology that everyone knows will INCREASE coal production in an era of rapidly approaching peak coal.

More so, Kerry's legislation today raises questions over whether his Senate version of the climate bill will exempt old coal-fired plants or close the loopholes in the Waxman-Markey bill. According to a 21-page summary, Kerry's bill will:

Section 1441. Performance Standards for Coal-fired Power Plants: Amends the Clean Air Act to establish performance standards for new coal-fired power plants permitted in 2009 or thereafter. Describes eligibility criteria, applicable emission standards, and the schedule upon which such standards must be met. Plants permitted in 2020 or thereafter are required to meet specified standards once they begin operations. Plants permitted from 2009-2020 are required to meet the specified standard within four years after certain technology deployment criteria are met but no later than 2020.

Last summer, Sierra Club Beyond Coal director Bruce Nilles wrote an impassioned blog, calling on the Senate to close the loopholes in Waxman-Markey, if we are to have any true climate and clean energy legislation:

While ACES does make some good strides in reducing global warming pollution, Big Coal cannot be allowed to vent billions of tons of pollution without consequence.

To close this huge loophole and level the playing field between coal and clean energy, the Senate must insist that the oldest, dirtiest plants will retire by a date certain or meet the same pollution standards as new plants. And, until they retire or clean up, existing plants must be prohibited from expanding their capacity and increasing carbon pollution. These measures would create an incentive for industry to use cleaner technologies instead of continuing to lean on the dirty dinosaurs that generate too much of our electricity today. Finally, if Congress cannot muster the backbone to clean up the nation's oldest and most dangerous coal plants, it ought to restore the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to do so.

The stakes could not be greater. We cannot let Big Coal get away with another massive loophole to continue polluting at the same level as today for 1-2 more decades. Congress must close the coal loophole and make the coal industry slash its pollution. Our future depends on it.

Has Sen. Kerry closed this loophole?

The future of the coalfields, and the nation, depend on it.

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