Criticism of Coal, ‘Big Oil’ Helped Obama in Swing States, Environmentalists Say

Kevin Mooney | November 26, 2008 | 12:44pm EST
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Ocean (AP Photo)

( - Voters in key swing states like Pennsylvania who have a stake in the coal industry were not motivated to vote against Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the president elect, because they are open and receptive to technological changes and alterative forms of energy, according to environmental activists.
Top officials with the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Environment America, Clean Water Action, and National Wildlife Federation Action Fund spoke at the National Press Club in early November and offered up their assessment of the 2008 election. They also discussed the potential ramifications for energy policy going forward.
Pro-environmental candidates were elected across-the-board in key states, unseating incumbents who advocated failed policies connected with “big oil,” said Gene Karpinksi, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
The Senate races in Colorado, New Hampshire, and New Mexico were prioritized, he said, because the outcome could directly influence new legislation.
Karpinski also said that President-elect Obama has a firm understanding of the connection between sound energy policy, economic growth and national security. With the Senate now closer to a pro-environmentalist 60-seat majority, Karpinski anticipates a strong push for policy changes divorced from the oil and coal industry.  
Obama has expressed his support for a nationwide cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which some studies have linked to a global warming trend over the last 50 years. On his campaign Web site Obama calls for an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050.
(Under cap and trade, electric utilities, manufacturers, and other firms would be limited in the amount of carbon dioxide they could release in the air. Companies that emitted more than the limit prescribed to them would then have to buy “carbon allowances” in a government-contrived system from companies that had carbon credits. Those companies would largely include “green” firms that are environmentally friendly in their production and what that they produce, e.g., possibly solar-powered generators.)

A man skis on Mt. Bachelor near Bend, Ore. (AP Photo)

“The market will set the price, but unlike the other cap-and-trade proposals that have been offered in this race, no business will be allowed to emit any greenhouses gases for free,” Obama said at New Hampshire campaign rally in October. “Businesses don't own the sky, the public does – and if we want them to stop polluting it, we have to put a price on all pollution.”
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in January, Obama acknowledged that his plan could put the coal industry out of business.
So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can,” Obama told the Chronicle. “It's just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”
Although the coal industry is prominent in his home state of Pennsylvania, Bob Wendelgass, national deputy director of Clean Water Action, told that there is a growing appetite for innovations and changes that open the way to clean, renewable energy.
Wendelgass credited Ed Rendell, the state’s Democratic governor, for establishing strong mercury standards that enjoy broad support. Pennsylvania has 36 coal-fired plants with 78 electric generating units, according to state government figures.
“We are talking about a long-term shift that will involve technological changes in the way plants operate,” Wendelgass said. “We need to move aggressively in the direction of new, renewable energy sources. This is where the job growth and economic opportunities will be in the future.”
The regulatory change in Pennsylvania became effective in February 2007 and was upheld in court earlier this year, Charlie Young, a spokesman with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said in a phone interview. The new rules call for an 80 percent reduction in mercury by January 2010 and a 90 percent reduction by 2015, said.
Karpinski, the League of Conservation Voters president, told that he expects to see some corporate opposition to Obama’s agenda. Even so, there are business leaders who are willing to entertain environmental initiatives, Karpinski said.
“In any industry there are leaders and there are laggers,” he said. “The trade associations are the lowest common denominator, but there are companies that recognize changes need to occur, and they are willing to find common ground. So I see opportunities.”
Karpinksi identified the United States Climate Action Partnership (U.S. CAP), a coalition of businesses sympathetic to environmental solutions, as a potential partner in pushing for reforms.
Other speakers said the election results show that public support for creative energy solutions cuts across party lines.
“The results validate a positive vision,” Cathy Duvall, political director of the Sierra Club, said. “In many ways, McCain and [Sarah] Palin attempted to define this election around ‘drill baby drill,’ but Obama provided an alternative.
“Like one of the final ads from the Obama campaign portraying McCain’s policies through the lens of a car’s rear-view mirror, voters solidly rejected polices of the past in favor of energy polices of the future,” she said.
Polling results showed that even Republican-leaning voters such as hunters and fishermen were supportive of adopting new energy polices, said Sue Brown, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund (NWF).
Over 80 percent of hunters and anglers believe the United States should establish a new vision on energy policy and set a goal to achieve 100 percent of electricity from clean, renewable sources within the next decade, according to a NWF poll, which Brown cited.
She also noted that all seven of the congressional candidates endorsed by the NWF prevailed.
The incoming Obama administration and the new Congress will have the opportunity to launch a “Green Deal” that will reverse the economic downturn by way of investing in clean energy, Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, declared in a press release circulated at conference.
“The past eight years of denial and delay are over,” he said. “Voters largely embraced candidates who support clean energy, green jobs, and a safer climate for our children and grandchildren.”
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