On Coal, Which Obama Administration Is Going to Show Up?

Last week, Mayor Mike McGinn and KC Golden, policy director at Climate Solutions, testified in front of the House Energy & Commerce committee on plans to export millions of tons of coal mined in Montana and Wyoming to China via Washington and Oregon.

As Golden tells it, the Obama administration’s posture wasn’t encouraging.

“On the day of the hearing, the panel before us [The Army Corps of Engineers] got up and said they would not consider the impacts of burning the coal—and this after Governor Inslee and umpteen mayors have called for a full and fair analysis of this,” Golden says. “They said ‘Sorry, not our job.’”

But as President Barack Obama made his landmark climate change speech yesterday at Georgetown University, Golden found himself feeling more optimistic about the outcome of the coal export issue.

“The president’s speech is psychologically important because none of us feel qualified to tackle climate change in our own little way. I think he affirmed the importance of state and local leadership, which is where change is going to start,” he says.

“I’m a believer in the power of presidential leadership. Screwing in your little efficient light bulb doesn’t make a difference if the president isn’t even talking about the issue.”

Mayor Mike McGinn didn’t miss a beat in using Obama’s renewed commitment to fight climate change to ask the administration once again to complete a more comprehensive study about the implications of northwest coal exports.

“I urge President Obama to go further, to direct the Army Corps of Engineers or another federal agency to conduct a broad analysis of the impacts of coal export, including the impacts of mining in Wyoming and Montana, transporting the coal via rail across state lines, shipping it through our waters and eventually burning it in Asia,” McGinn said in a press release following Obama’s speech.

Local celebrity meteorologist, climate change expert and UW professor Cliff Mass was not so enthralled by Obama’s speech.

“That sounds more hopeful than concrete,” Mass said of the ‘new national context’ that Golden claims the President’s speech brings to the table. “Most of the stuff on [Obama’s] list is vague or generally acceptable. If you want to do something real, it must be concrete and substantial. Stopping coal trains and shale oil would be. Accepting the need for nuclear power would be.”

“If Obama was serious about global warming, we would stop the export of coal and impact of shale oil from Canada. He said nothing about that.”

Even Golden acknowledges that there is much more to be done.

“We could reduce our local emissions to zero and we’d still lose snow pack up in the mountains. We still need a global green energy revolution. We have some of the cleanest air and cheapest power in the country, but again the point of all this isn’t to wave our little green flag and go ‘woohoo,’ it’s to start building the infrastructure for a national, environmentally sound economic and energy system.”

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