December 10, 2014

Time to Wake Up: A Carbon Fee is Not a War on Coal

As delivered on the Senate floor

Thank you, Mr. President, I am here this evening for “Time to Wake Up” speech number eighty-two. 

Scientists tell us that the evidence for climate change is “unequivocal”, “unequivocal”—not a word often used in scientific writing—and the American people know that climate change is real.  In a new poll released by the insurance firm Munich Re, eight out of ten Americans believe the climate is changing. They see it happening right around them.  

The American people also know we need to cut our carbon pollution if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change—we can’t keep burning carbon-polluting fossil fuels indiscriminately.  Seven out of ten Americans put using more carbon-free energy, like solar and wind, among the best ways to battle climate change. 

Changing the way we generate power will help cut emissions from the largest sources of carbon pollution in the country, our coal-fired power plants.  The Energy Information Administration notes that coal generates less than 40 percent of our country’s electricity, while it generates 75 percent of the carbon pollution from the power sector.  The fifty dirtiest coal plants in America emit more carbon pollution than all of South Korea or all Canada.  

Which brings us to the “War on Coal.”

Every effort to protect the American people from coal pollution has been denounced by the fossil fuel industry and its various mouthpieces as a “War on Coal.”  When EPA proposed limits on emissions from new power plants, you heard, “War on Coal!”  When EPA proposed limits on emissions from existing power plants, “War on Coal!”  For mercury limits, ozone limits, particulate limits—always, “War on Coal.”

Mr. President, the War on Coal is a fabrication.  The denial machine funded by fossil fuel money literally owns, owns the War on Coal.  The website is owned by American Commitment, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that has been funded by the Koch Brothers-backed group Freedom Partners.  War on Coal; it’s a public relations strategy, a catch-phrase, a gimmick that serves to distract people from the harm coal reeks on us.

Dr. Drew Shindell is a professor at Duke University.  He worked at NASA for two decades.   Last week in the Environment and Public Works Committee, he said, I’ll quote him: “We hear a lot up here on Capitol Hill about the war on coal; what we forget about is coal’s war on us.”

So, let’s talk about the War on Coal, so called, versus coal’s war on us. When Republicans talk about President Obama’s War on Coal, they leave a lot out.  They leave out that coal companies have shifted to big open-top mines, what is called mountaintop removal, so they can lay off miners and still produce the same amount of coal.  They leave out that coal simply can’t compete with today’s cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas. 

In 2012, Duke Energy’s own CEO acknowledged that EPA’s proposed climate rule for new power plants was not to blame.  “The new climate rule,” he said, “is in line with market forces anyway.  We’re not going to build any coal plants in any event. We’re not going to build any coal plants in any event.,”  he said.“ You’re going to choose to build gas plants every time, regardless of what the rule is.”

That, Mr. President, is  not a regulatory War on Coal.  That is the free market operating.

EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan for existing power plants is the newest PR front in the imaginary “War on Coal.”  EPA projects that the clean power plan will yield between $55 billion and $93 billion in benefits per year by 2030, compared to $7-9 billion to comply with the rule.  That math makes it a winner for the American people.  Some War on Coal, what would they expect us to do? Give up $90 billion in benefits for the American people at the high end, in order to avoid a $9 billion compliance cost, again at the high end? $90 billion for the American people, $9 billion in compliance. Who wouldn’t take that deal?

If the Obama Administration is waging a War on Coal, it has a funny way of going about it.  Coal exports grew by 44 percent from 2008 to 2012.  The Administration keeps opening up federal lands to coal extraction, awarding many leases at below-market rates.  

It actually took a federal judge in Colorado to tell the Obama Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to factor the costs of climate change into their cost-benefit analysis of coal mining leases.   The federal agencies had looked at only one side the ledger: they counted the economic benefits of mining coal, but not the costs. Some War on Coal.

Two years ago, the Obama Army Corps of Engineers fast-tracked environmental review of a proposed coal export terminal on the Columbia River in Oregon.  Local communities and tribes objected, and the State of Oregon denied the permit for the project. 

If that’s what a federal War on Coal looks like, somebody didn’t get the memo.

On the other side, let’s look at what coal’s war on us looks like.  Evidence that mining and burning coal harms our health and our environment and our oceans is undeniable.  It’s this other side of the coal ledger that hits home in Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and many other states, and it’s the side polluters want to ignore, and obscure with “War on Coal” rhetoric.

Burning coal releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  That warms our atmosphere, bringing changes we are already seeing in seasons, weather,  and storms.  There’s a strong association between global warming and the sort of rainbursts that flooded homes and businesses in Rhode Island in 2010, for instance.

Coal burning contributes to the formation of toxic ground-level ozone, which is a cause of the “bad air days” in my home state of Rhode Island.  Kids with asthma in the emergency room in Rhode Island are connected with Midwestern power plants that burn coal and pump often unscrubbed emissions up smokestacks designed to move the problem downwind—out of state, out of mind. 

And don’t overlook our oceans, which absorb about a third of the carbon pollution being emitted and most of the excess heat.  As a result, oceans are becoming more acidic, water temperatures are  rising, and sea levels are rising across the globe.  In Rhode Island, the sea is up nearly ten inches at the tide gauge at Naval Station Newport since the 1930s, when we had our Great Hurricane of 1938.

So whether you’re a flooded home, or a mom with a child in athsma in the emergency room, or somebody with coastal property facing 10 inches higher seas. There are costs to coal. This is all virtually indisputable, and follows immutable laws of nature.

Damage to coastal homes and infrastructure from rising seas and erosion; asthma attacks in children triggered by smog; forests dying from beetle infestations and unprecedented wildfire seasons; farms ravaged by worsened drought and flooding; these are all real costs to Americans.  This other side of the coal ledger counts too.

It even hits home in coal country, where blowing up mountain tops pollutes streams, and harms folks around the mining operations.  West Virginia University has linked the dust thrown up by these mountaintop mines to lung cancer among nearby residents. 

Coal-fired power plants are the biggest sources of mercury pollution in the United States, and they also emit arsenic, acid gases, and other toxins.  Dr. Shindell, who I mentioned earlier, is an expert in atmospheric chemistry and health, here’s what he told the EPW Committee last week, I will quote:

“Of all of the sources of the emissions that lead to poor air quality in the United States, coal      burning is the single largest, causing by my calculations about 47,000 premature deaths per year.  That happens to be larger than the total number of Americans killed in all of the years of the Vietnam War by hostile fire.”

If you look at the casualties, Mr. President, the federal government isn’t waging a War on Coal. If there’s any war, coal is waging a war on us.

This is business as usual for the polluter industry and its propaganda apparatus.  Coal companies have long fought public health standards, mineworker protections, and compensation for ailments like black lung disease, as well as efforts to address acid rain or reduce toxic pollutants like mercury that cause brain damage in kids.

In 1989, Southern Company CEO Edward Addison testified that acid-rain controls would increase electricity rates in states with the most coal power by 10 to 20 percent by 2009.  Well, we couldn’t evaluate such predictions then, but now we can.  In the ten states with the most coal, rates actually fell.  Big Coal’s war on the truth has a long and sordid history. 

Mr. President, I recently had the opportunity to visit West Virginia with Senator Manchin to learn about what coal means to the Mountain State economy.  I get it. We need to care about the miners, truckers, power-plant operators, engineers and others who make their living in this industry.  It would be wrong to ignore their plight, just as it’s wrong when the coal industry tries to ignore the effects of its carbon pollution. 

I think we need a carbon fee to correct the market and to slow climate change.  I’m sure I’ll hear that’s a War on Coal.  It’s not.  It’s simple fairness.  It means simply paying for the mess you cause.  That’s not war.  It’s not even punishment.  It’s just fair accounting—taking both sides of the ledger into account.

When people do that, economists and scientists calculate the cost of carbon pollution as what they call the “social cost of carbon.”  The Administration estimates the social cost of carbon at around forty dollars per ton of carbon pollution. Forty dollars per ton. The effective cost to polluters for causing that mess is zero.

My carbon fee bill would correct that, correct what even economists at groups as conservative as the American Enterprise Institute agree is a market failure, and would then return every dollar of the fee to the American people.  That could include transition assistance for coal workers—and assistance for communities far from coal mines, like in Rhode Island, facing these costs of climate change. 

It’s also becoming increasingly clear that a revenue-neutral carbon fee will spur innovation, create jobs, and boost the economy nationwide. 

It’s time to end the polluters’ holiday from responsibility.  It’s time to see through their fanciful “War on Coal,” and protect those facing the effects of coal’s war on us, and coal’s war on the truth.  It’s time to seize the economic benefit of a clean energy economy. It is time to wake up. 

I yield the floor.