Is Obama waging a ‘war on coal’?

President Barack Obama speaks to the media after meeting with House Speaker John Boehner at the White House, March 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama said that no agreement was reached with Republicans to avoid the sequester that will trigger automatic domestic and defense cuts. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Obama speaks to the media after meeting with House Speaker John Boehner at the White House, March 1, 2013. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Daniel P. Schrag, who directs Harvard University's Center for the Environment as serves as one of the administration's scientific adviser, set off a firestorm Tuesday when The New York Times quoted him saying "a war on coal is exactly what's needed" to address global warming.

Is President Obama--who will make a major climate address Tuesday-- pursuing "a war on coal," as Republicans and coal industry officials frequently charge? To a large extent, the answer is yes.

While the administration is a strong booster of natural gas--which has roughly half the carbon emissions of coal, and has sparked both a manufacturing and employment revival in several regions of the country--it has pursued a string of policies making it more costly for businesses to extract and burn coal. While Obama's announcement to regulate existing power plants is the latest example of how the Environmental Protection Agency is tightening regulations on coal burning, the EPA has already imposed stricter limits on mercury and other air toxins as well as soot, both of which come from coal-fired power plants. On top of that, the EPA has made it harder for firms to dump waste from mountaintop mining into nearby streams and valleys.

Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, whose group has already helped secure the retirement or announced retirement of 147 coal plants in the United States, said it's clear Obama is targeting the coal industry with today's speech.

"The president realizes that you can’t combat climate change without a direct confrontation with the fossil fuel industry," Brune said in an interview Tuesday. "What has us most encouraged by the president’s speech is he is lacing up his gloves and getting ready for that fight."

Granted, many of these plants are already on their way out. The average age of the plants that are closing or slated to close is 56 years; the average age of the remaining coal-fired fleet is about 40. So even without new EPA rules, utilities may want to scrap their old facilities and replace them with gas-fired plants. Since 2008 only one new coal plant has broken ground, according to the Sierra Club: Mississippi Power's plant in Kemper County.

Still Kyle Danish, an attorney at the law firm Van Ness Feldman, said utilities that already have to spend heavily to control their toxic emissions are anxious to see exactly how the federal government will regulate carbon dioxide from existing plants.

"They want to make the investment in scrubbers and other very expensive equipment to meet the mercury and toxics standards, but they don't want those investments to be stranded if they end up closing the plant anyway," Danish said.

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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Sean Sullivan | June 25, 2013