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Obama's Biggest Environmental 'Victory' Was Really a Big Win for Gas Drillers

While new regulations on power plants are a hit to Big Coal, they are a boon to the gas industry.
 
 
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Editor's note: Check out AlterNet's new special coverage page about Fracking.

Greenhouse gas emissions are hot news these days -- especially during election season when candidates, at least those who claim to believe in climate science, say they are actually going to do something about the biggest environmental crisis facing our little blue planet: global warming.

In early March, while campaigning in New Hampshire, Obama vowed to end $4 billion in Big Oil and Gas subsidies. "You can either stand up for the oil companies, or you can stand up for the American people," Obama said to an applauding audience. "You can keep subsidizing a fossil fuel that's been getting taxpayer dollars for a century, or you can place your bets on a clean-energy future."

That sounds dandy, but ending subsidies to polluters is only half the battle, and Obama's idea of a "clean-energy future" is tenuous at best. In an attempt to round up the green vote, President Obama is trumpeting his half-hearted attempt to put the breaks on global warming by tapping energy sources here at home and regulating the industry that's doing most of the damage. Only days after the president announced he was looking to fast-track the southern portion of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, his administration released the first-ever federal standards to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

In what's now become typical Obama fashion, the move was meant to appease environmental critics while at the same time ensure the fossil fuel industry that the so-called New Source Performance Standard would not actually hurt its bottom lines.

Here's why: the EPA rule would only impact new coal-fired power plants, but only those that break ground in over a year from now. In all, 15 proposed coal plants in 10 states could be potentially impacted by the rule, even though most are already hung up in court battles. As such, no coal-fired power plants in the United States have broke ground over the past three years and environmentalists, thanks to their tenacity and perseverance, have seen far more victories than defeats when it comes to battling King Coal on this front.

The new greenhouse rule will require fossil fuel-fired electricity generating units to restrict their emissions to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt-hour of electricity produced; a strict standard to be sure, but one that doesn't come without caveats. All old power plants, some well over 50 years in age, will be exempt entirely from Obama's greenhouse rule, despite the fact that these archaic facilities alone account for over 40 percent of carbon emissions in the country. In a nutshell, the biggest coal polluters are being let off the hook altogether.

Five years ago a whopping 151 new coal plants were slated for construction, but with one of the greatest environmental achievements in our history, grassroots activists across the country stopped their development.

Obama is riding on the coat-tails of these victories, which is to be expected, but what's underlying the greenhouse gas rule is a bit more sinister. As concerns about the impacts of fracking continue to grow, the power plants that burn natural gas extracted through this process of pumping a mix of water, chemicals and sand deep into the earth's crust, won't be covered by the rule. Generally, natural gas plants produce less than 900 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. Indeed the limit set by the EPA was not arbitrary; it directly aids and abets the natural gas industry. Obama knows quite well that natural gas is poised to be the fossil fuel of the future and his administration and the EPA are not going to stand in the way of the big boom.

 
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