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Editorial comment

April 29 concluded the first 100 days of the Obama administration, the traditional milepost for taking stock of a new US Government’s policy direction. The US coal community is cautiously assessing what this policy direction means for its future. However, the picture is unusually clouded by the depth and duration of a brutal recession that has taken the initiative, and maybe the heart, out of attempts to transform environmental policy and the energy economy.


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April 29 concluded the first 100 days of the Obama administration, the traditional milepost for taking stock of a new US Government’s policy direction. The US coal community is cautiously assessing what this policy direction means for its future. However, the picture is unusually clouded by the depth and duration of a brutal recession that has taken the initiative, and maybe the heart, out of attempts to transform environmental policy and the energy economy.

The political ascendance of pro-Government Democrats and a prolonged economic crisis have tightened Washington’s grip on the nation’s business. Indeed, we are seeing a dramatic revision of the political topography: a near complete dismantling of the Reagan-era doctrine that Government is the problem to a doctrine that views Government as the solution. The new political leadership, in both Congress and the White House, is far more sympathetic to environmental constituencies than under the previous president, a factor that will lead to higher environmental and operating costs for coal producers. Expect the Obama administration to propose revisions to several pending air quality standards that will harm coal-fired power plants.

In short, a political shift of this magnitude could carry far-reaching implications for energy policy. Arguably, energy policy is at the heart of Washington’s grander ambitions, specifically the administration’s dogged intent to transform an economy powered by fossil fuels into one powered primarily by renewable energy.

From the earliest days on the campaign trail to these first 100 days in office, the president and many in Congress have focussed on the low-carbon future as a near panacea for creating millions of new ‘green’ jobs, solving global warming, strengthening the nation’s energy independence and providing environmental sustainability. How this ambition squares with their defence of clean coal technologies (i.e. coal with CCS technology) is among the more intriguing questions still unanswered. While the president and his energy secretary, Steven Chu, continue to emphasise that clean coal is a necessary part of US energy future, other agencies in the new administration see ‘base-load’ power as an anachronistic component of an out-dated energy policy.

For now, however, the longest recession in post-war US history has blunted the agenda of coal’s critics and exposed divisions within the Democratic Party. In trying to please both labour and green activists, the administration wants to stimulate employment and strengthen energy security, while at the same time it is jeopardising thousands of high-wage jobs by slowing approval for operating permits at hundreds of coal mining projects.

Meanwhile, Congress may be too concerned about aggravating economic hardship to pass a forceful climate change law in time for a debut at the Copenhagen summit in December. And while Congress may force power plants to use more renewable fuel, it is unclear whether it will pass comprehensive energy legislation. Behind all this is the palpable anxiety caused by the economic crisis. Last month, a nationwide Gallup poll found that, for the first time in 25 years, Americans were more concerned about the economy than the environment. And when recently asked to rank 20 major issues – from health care to defence – Americans ranked economic issues at the top, global warming at the bottom.

Whether or not this is a short-lived phenomenon is anyone’s guess and perhaps depends on how soon the economy rebounds. When economic growth resumes, so may public support for moving more aggressively on policies that will spell the end to Americans’ long-perceived right – however unrealistic – to cheap energy. For now, anyway, clean coal looks to be embraced by a Government nonetheless bent on transforming a carbon-based economy into a renewables-based one.