By Luke Popovich

“It doesn’t look so good right now,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), explaining his absence from the UN climate summit in Cancun that again failed to agree on a binding greenhouse gas reduction plan. This was a diplomatic understatement for the disappointed champion of the cap-and-trade bill that died in the Senate. Imagine Napoleon saying the same thing at Waterloo and you get the picture.

At least Napoleon, a brilliant general with a string of victories, was surprised at his Waterloo, but greens hoping for the best at Cancun should not have been. The UN climate confab in Copenhagen a year earlier ended not with a bang but a whimper, and nothing that has happened since encouraged a different outcome. If there’s one thing China and post-election America agree on, it’s a binding climate change treaty is off the table.  Curbing carbon emissions means higher energy bills and, for China’s leaders, forgoing coal is a rich country’s luxury it can’t afford. Other emerging countries, some desperately poor, were just as adamant against any deal that would raise their energy costs without substantial financial aid from the developed world.  But the developed world, struggling with massive deficits, fiscal austerity and stubborn unemployment, is unwilling to play Santa Claus this Christmas season. “The top-down treaty approach is clearly on the ropes,” said former U.S. climate negotiator Trevor Hauser.

Here in the U.S. of course, the mid-term elections extinguished any flickering hope we would lead the climate change effort by example with an economy-wide cap-and-trade law of our own. The American pledge last December in Denmark to help raise $100 billion annually by 2020 for developing countries and reduce emissions by 17% from 2005 levels now appears overly ambitious. The president himself admits cap-and-trade is off the table for several years, and newly empowered Republicans aren’t in a climate spending mood. “If you send Bill Clinton and George W. Bush out, maybe they can collect the hundred billion,” quipped Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Congress did take some action on climate change during the Cancun summit: it abolished the select global warming committee set up in 2007 by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) to spearhead cap-and-trade legislation opposed by the NMA.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) spoke for many when he said cap-and-trade legislation “has no future between now and anytime I can see” but vowed his support for more modest goals, like a clean energy standard for power plants that would include “clean coal.” The president is on the right path in settling for “singles” instead of home runs, said Graham.   

With neither a comprehensive global treaty nor congressional action in sight, thoughts now turn to the EPA’s climate regulation. This unwieldy machinery starts up in January, beginning with controls on stationary sources (i.e. power plants) and transportation. Despite strong opposition from the NMA and other industry groups, equivocal support from the president, and threats to block the rules from Congress, the EPA seems determined to press ahead. The potential impact of throttling coal consumption in an ailing economy has coal state congressmen wary if not outright opposed to EPA’s regulatory approach. Some experts expect the EPA’s pending clean air regulations targeting coal-burning power plants will kill 50 GW of capacity, weakening reliability of the nation’s grid.  

Ground zero of the opposition is, not surprisingly, West Virginia. Sen. Jay Rockefeller is supporting a bill calling for a two-year regulatory time out “because it gives carbon capture and storage (technology) a little more time to make a beachhead, and that’s what gets rid of 90% to 95% of carbon.”  

NMA agrees wholeheartedly with an approach that puts technology ahead of controls. West Virginia shows why we don’t need a regulatory agency to price coal out of the market simply to incentivize alternate fuels. “We already have two massive CCS projects in our state, mostly state and locally funded, corporate funded,” said Rockefeller.  

Without the technology available to neutralize carbon emissions from coal-based power generation, the EPA gets rid of the emissions by getting rid of coal.  That’s not the preferred solution for West Virginia, let alone for a country with the world’s largest coal reserves. “You got to have energy,” said the state’s new senator, Joe Manchin. “And what’s producing the most energy today at the cheapest price?” he asked rhetorically.

Leaders in Beijing know the answer.

Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.