President Obama has recently set forth an aggressive vision for addressing climate change, containing policies for both mitigating the harms and adapting to unavoidable impacts. In addition to the familiar themes of increasing renewable energy production and improving energy efficiency, the president also discusses preparation for the impacts of climate change through greater preparedness and creating more resilient communities and infrastructure. But the focus of attention has been on the plan’s major policy initiative: reducing carbon emissions from existing power plants.
While increased wind and solar generation is a key component, the most feasible route to the president’s carbon emissions target is substantially reducing current power plant carbon emissions by switching fuels from coal to natural gas. This “crackdown on coal,” is expected to impact states where Senate seats are being vacated by retiring Democratic incumbents. For example, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tim Johnson of South Dakota are leaving open seats in deeply red states, both of which have significant coal industries. Similarly, the president’s policy could have negative implications for weak incumbent Democrats like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
Republicans have already pounced on the president’s plan with Internet ads. In states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, and Virginia, the GOP hopes to make life difficult for Democratic incumbents and buttress weak Republican incumbents. In Virginia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has labeled the plan the “Obama-Biden-McAuliffe war on coal,” in an attempt to saddle Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe with some of the blame, while Senator Rob Portman of Ohio has called the president’s plan an “effort to raise electricity prices in Ohio.” The conflict is not simply between red and blue states, however. Demonstrating the blurring of political lines, Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has already “slammed” Obama’s “War on Coal and Economy.” The president’s plan is being billed as threatening “to eliminate coal as a viable option and replace it with unproven sources that cost more and deliver less.”
While it is likely that the GOP will be able to exploit the president’s climate change policy in some states, this issue will be nowhere near as broad and effective as Obamacare was in 2010. The effectiveness of this line of attack will be limited to coal states, where most seats are already held by the GOP. Further, the backlash may be somewhat mitigated by environmentalists’ support and the already declining coal industry. Democratic strategists have claimed that the risk is minimal and that, overall, the reduction of greenhouse gases and attention to climate change is not bad politics. Others have discounted the coal backlash altogether, citing the increase in natural gas production and highlighting that coal is a smaller piece of the economy. Look for the open Senate seats and remaining Democratic incumbents in coal states to be affected, but a tidal wave seems doubtful.
Charles Malcomb is a senior associate in the Environment & Energy Practice at Hodgson Russ LLP. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.