President Obama: Fired Up for Clean Energy or Dirty Coal?

On Tuesday, October 5, the White House announced that President Obama plans to install solar panels atop the First Family's living quarters in 2011 to heat water and supply some electricity.

This symbolic gesture is a big deal. We need a climate and clean energy communicator-in-chief -- and by installing solar on the most prestigious house in our country, the president signals a new level of commitment to filling that role.

The president's move also demonstrates the power of our collective action to make a political impact. made provoking world leaders to put solar on their homes a goal of the 10/10/10 Global Climate Work Party. With more than 6,300 events planned in 187 countries, this Sunday will be the largest day of action for climate solutions the world has ever seen -- and the timing of the White House solar announcement couldn't have been a coincidence. (Click here to find and sign up for an event on Sunday.)

Bill McKibben summed up the significance in this post from Tuesday:

Would we rather have comprehensive climate legislation? We would -- which is why, on Sunday, people will put down their hammers and shovels, pick up their cellphones, and in all those countries call their presidents, prime ministers, Politburos to say: 'I'm getting to work, what about you?'

And when they call the White House, they'll be able to add: 'Thanks for making a real start.'

As we celebrate this real start on Sunday, we'll of course be pushing President Obama to take his nascent clean energy leadership to the next level -- and really fire up everyone hungry for leadership.

The next step is for the Obama administration to move beyond symbolism. A key area for improvement is the Obama administration's posture and policies toward coal. Coal is one of the most important fronts in the fight against climate change and for healthy communities. Unfortunately, instead of standing up to the coal industry, the Obama administration has too often enabled its dirty pollution, accounting for about 30 percent of climate-warming emissions in the U.S., to persist. Here are three opportunities for President Obama to reverse and redeem his track record.

Ending mountaintop removal

Mountaintop removal is an extreme form of mining in which coal companies demolish the tops of mountains in Appalachia (destroying acres of forest that are among the most diverse in the world) and bury surrounding rivers and valleys that sustain ecosystems and provide drinking water to communities.

2010-10-07-ProtectourHomelandEndMTRweb.jpgIn April 2010, President Obama's EPA released tough new guidelines for reviewing mountaintop removal permits. However, its first decision under them gave the green light to Arch Coal to bury three more valleys in Logan County, West Virginia.

On September 27, more than 1,000 citizens from Appalachia and across the country converged in Washington, D.C. to demand that the Obama administration abolish mountaintop removal altogether. Protesters marched past the EPA to the White House holding signs and sharing stories that testified to the devastating impacts that mountaintop removal inflicts on their health and communities. More than 100 citizens, including world-renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, were arrested engaging in a non-violent sit-in in front of the White House.

In the coming months, the EPA will decide whether to veto a permit for one of the largest mountaintop removal projects ever proposed, the Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia, which would destroy more than 2,000 acres. The Spruce Mine decision will signal whether or not the Obama administration is serious about halting one of our nation's worst environmental crimes.

Protecting communities from toxic coal ash waste

The EPA is also considering the first-ever federal regulations to address coal ash, a highly toxic solid waste produced by American coal plants to the tune of 150 million tons each year. The dumps where much of this waste is stored routinely leach cancer-causing toxins into streams and drinking water. In December 2008, a small town in eastern Tennessee was devastated when a nearby coal ash storage pond ruptured, covering 300 acres in toxic sludge.

Even though the EPA's own data show that drinking water contaminated by coal ash is more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, the agency has left the door open for regulations that would essentially maintain the toxic status quo.

White House interference is to blame. The EPA originally proposed classifying coal ash as hazardous and setting strong, federally enforceable standards for its disposal. However, after sending its proposal to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for review, the EPA changed course. In May 2010, it released two regulatory options for public review -- one that is stringent and another that would leave coal ash virtually uncontrolled. The EPA is taking public comments until November 30, 2010 and will then make a final decision. If the Obama administration is committed to defending public health, it must choose the stronger option.

Keeping our tax dollars out of the coal industry's coffers

The Obama administration's reluctance to stand up to the coal industry has not only been evident in EPA decisions, but also in its use of our tax dollars.

The Obama administration directed $3.8 billion in stimulus funds to carbon capture and storage (CCS), a unicorn technology that has virtually no potential to deliver substantial cuts in climate-warming emissions.

President Obama is also misleading the public by claiming that CCS technology is a way toward "clean" coal. This is a dangerous misnomer. Coal-fired power plants that use CCS would still require coal to be mined, produce toxic coal ash waste, and belch other pollutants into the air. And carbon that is captured and "sequestered" underground also creates environmental risks. If an underground deposit of carbon dioxide were suddenly to leak (as happened with a natural carbon dioxide deposit in Cameroon that killed 1,200 people in 1986) people living and working nearby could suffocate.

Two additional decisions on taxpayer support for dirty coal are looming: The Obama administration must decide whether to fund the world's most polluting coal plant in Kusile, South Africa via a U.S. Export-Import Bank loan and whether to issue a loan guarantee to help build the country's first-ever liquid coal plant in Wyoming.

President Obama must stop supporting subsidies for CCS and other dirty coal projects, and cease falsely claiming that coal can be clean.

A way forward

By cracking down on the coal industry's devastating pollution, President Obama has an opportunity to really energize activists and community leaders across the country hungry for real climate leadership. White House manipulation of the EPA, his administration's counterproductive use of tax dollars to fund dirty coal projects, and his misleading "clean coal" rhetoric can all change -- and they must. Human health in coal-impacted communities and our success in preventing the worst impacts of climate change depend on it.