Obama v. the People, Coal Goes to Court

by Kyle Ash

April 19, 2011


The Obama administration says they’re on the side of the coal industry. I’m talking about the administration’s support of polluters in American Electric Power v. Connecticut. The Supreme Court is finally hearing this case, filed in 2004, about carbon pollution caused by burning coal for electricity. Defendants are responsible for about 10% of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States. The plaintiffs include several states who are arguing that they should be allowed to sue polluters of greenhouse gases under public nuisance law. Global climate disruption is surely more than a nuisance, but this atmospheric emergency requires every tool we can muster.

Obama’s Justice Department has twice filed an amicus brief on AEP v. Connecticut, in which they argue that responsibility for climate change policy lies with the Executive Branch and Legislative Branch. This is also the coal industry’s argument, never mind that they simultaneously lobby against any and all limits to their pollution by EPA and Congress. I do not believe that the Obama administration is two-faced, but they also don’t appear rushed on global warming policy.

Despite his campaign promise, President Obama never campaigned for climate policy. He let Congress try to push a climate bill without any public campaign. Of course that didn’t go well. The heyday was Waxman-Markey, a valiant effort on the bill’s namesakes, but it was so riddled with polluter compromises by its passage that Greenpeace had to oppose it.

Although climate policy should have been a foregone conclusion in the 70s, the seven year life of AEP v. Connecticut isn’t that long in terms of federal policy movement. In 1987 Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, the Global Climate Protection Act, which stated that ‘[t]he President, through the Environmental Protection Agency, shall be responsible for developing and proposing to Congress a coordinated national policy on global climate change.’ This has never happened.

Actually Obama’s EPA has argued that developing regulations on GHG pollution from utilities are not intended to impose specific targets, caps, or numbers on pollution limits. In its third year, the Obama administration continues to drag its feet on carbon pollution from burning coal. Obama continues to publicly support the myth that coal plant smokestacks can be safely turned upside down, pumping billions of tons of pollution underground.

Every administrative agency and President Obama himself have seemingly made every effort to publicly assuage the concerns of polluters. Obama has been letting climate deniers boost public opinion. And the political trend in Congress is not improving on its own. That’s the whole point of this case – that citizens should be able to ask the courts to step in when Congress and the President have failed us.

Kyle Ash

By Kyle Ash

Kyle Ash formerly served as Greenpeace's Legislative Policy Expert, responsible for domestic and international climate change policy analysis and campaign strategy. He has been quoted in Politico, Greenwire, the New York Times, and CNN, and was one of the most frequently quoted sources during the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

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