THE BLOG
10/26/2015 08:30 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2016

The White House Pushes Clean Energy While Coal States Push the Past

Bloomberg via Getty Images

In an article appearing in The Hill last week, Timothy Cama reported that:

A coalition of 24 states and a coal mining company filed lawsuits Friday to challenge the most significant piece of President Obama's environmental agenda, his signature climate change rule for power plants. The litigants accuse the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of going far beyond the authority Congress granted to it by ordering a significant transformation of states' electricity generation, moving away from fossil fuels like coal and toward lower-carbon sources like wind and solar power. They are asking the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to overturn the rule. They also want the court to immediately stop its implementation while it works its way through the courts.

In the same piece Cama also reported that:

The attorneys general of 15 liberal states, along with the District of Columbia and New York City, are planning to intervene in the lawsuit to support the EPA. Those state and city officials, led by New York State, said in August that they "fully anticipate defending the rules if they are challenged in court."

It's not clear why Mr. Cama refers to the states defending EPA as "liberal" states; I suppose that's just another way to say states that are less dependent on coal and more concerned about breathing. Ironically, it was a lawsuit brought by a group of state attorney generals that led the Supreme Court to define greenhouse gases as an air pollutant, which required President George W. Bush to regulate greenhouse gases under the decades-old Clean Air Act.

My own view is that this lawsuit is yet another death rattle of the fossil fuel industry. It's too bad they refuse to change with the times and recognize that there is a lot of money to be made with renewable energy. If they would redefine themselves as energy companies instead of fossil fuel companies they would have a better chance of staying in business over the long run. Not all companies are so eager to embrace the past. The "phone company" is a good example: AT&T stands for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. The telegraph is a distant memory and the landlines that made the company rich are less important than they once were, and yet I look down at my smartphone and see that AT&T is my service provider. Today's AT&T, which was once called Southwestern Bell, is one of the world's largest telecommunications companies. They continue to grow and get wealthier by embracing, rather than resisting, technological change. But the coal, gas and oil companies continue to pressure the government and resist change. They have had some success in slowing the transition to a renewable economy, but they are on the wrong side of history.

While continuing to placate the fossil fuel industry with drilling leases and the last dying gasps of the "all of the above" energy non-strategy, the Obama Administration is ending its term by going all in on renewable energy. It is clear that we have reached a political and technological turning point. Clean energy is cost competitive with fossil fuels, and Americans see the advantages of curing their addiction to dirty fuels. On Saturday morning I received an email from the White House Council on Environmental Quality summarizing a spectacular week for clean energy in our nation's capital. According to Angela Barranco of CEQ:

In President Obama's conservation and climate-themed weekly address that just went live this morning, he highlighted some of the most important actions his Administration has taken to preserve the environment for future generations and prevent the worst effects of climate change...The President's weekly addressed capped off an exciting week for us...On Monday, we announced that an additional 81 companies signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, demonstrating their support for private-sector action on climate change...Yesterday, the White House hosted a forum with cutting edge companies to highlight exciting momentum in the world of off-grid sustainable energy access, particularly for developing countries... On Tuesday and Wednesday, the State Department held the Climate and Energy Investment Forum, in partnership with Georgetown University and Google. Convening investors, corporations, philanthropies, and policymakers, the White House event provided a forum to discuss and promote the impact that climate and clean energy investments can have in the fight against global climate change...

This is a lot of talk and just a little action, but it is all that the President can do in the face of a Congress that does not want to help him govern. What is more significant than the White House conferences, speeches and other PR initiatives is the historic effort to require states to produce concrete plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The Clean Power Rule being challenged by the coal industry is more than "the war on coal" that Republicans claim it is. It communicates to the business community that the entire fossil fuel industry will eventually go the way of the telegraph, the horse and buggy and the eight-track sound tape. Get a wing ready in the Smithsonian--the internal combustion engine and coal-burning furnace will be on exhibit by the middle of the century.

The fact that we are addicted to energy and still require fossil fuels should not be taken to mean that we couldn't get off of fossil fuels while increasing energy efficiency. We can and we will. But no one is going to give up the current energy system until a cleaner one comes along that can match the cost and convenience of the energy we use today. But throughout our society people can't fight off the feeling that fossil fuels are dirty, dangerous, and past their prime. The appeal of solar cells and electric cars is growing. The attraction to green buildings and sustainable supply chains is beyond denying. It's like eating a meal with fries, beer and pie. It tastes great but you still feel a little sick when you get up from the table. The fossil fuel era will not end soon, but the momentum toward renewables is already underway.

The legal battle is important because the Clean Power Rule provides additional governmental pressure to push the move toward renewable energy. Although I view the transition to be inevitable, the speed of the transition is at stake here. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already contributing to global warming, and will do so for a very long time. A more rapid transition to a renewable energy economy will reduce the impact of climate change in the future.

However, the rule is only one element of the larger global picture. Other nations are already further along on the transition to renewable energy than we are. Germany is rapidly moving away from fossil fuels and of course France has long been dependent on nuclear power for its electricity (that creates other environmental issues, but not climate change). When China decides to forcefully move off of coal, its central government has the political muscle to ensure a rapid transition. But China, like the United States, needs lots of energy to run its economy. They will not get rid of fossil fuels until the alternatives are as practical, convenient and reliable as the fuels they now use. The surest sign that renewable energy technology is more than just a little cost competitive will be when we see China shutting down coal-fired power plants and replacing them with renewable energy.

Meanwhile, back at home we will need to count on the signal sent by the clean power regulation that it is national policy to begin the transition away from fossil fuels. While there are many other methods that could have been used to reduce greenhouse gases, this is the only one the Obama Administration has had the authority to use. It is to their credit that they have put the authority to use as creatively as they have. The Clean Power Rule will be the most important environmental legacy of the Obama Administration.