On the eve of the 2012 election, more than 50 of President Obama's EPA staffers are crashing to finish new greenhouse gas emission standards. The rules would make the construction of new coal-fired power plants nearly impossible. A government-imposed switch from coal to other forms of energy would cost the economy about $700 billion over several years, according to the Manhattan Institute.
The bureaucrats are clearly in a hurry to get this done. Never before has the EPA devoted so many staffers to a single regulation. Take it as a sign of pre-election panic by environmentalists inside the Obama administration. If Mitt Romney wins tomorrow's election, regulators will have only a narrow window to enact anti-fossil fuel regulations that would then be very hard for the new president to undo.
The domestic coal industry has already taken a beating. The advent of cheap natural gas, which is itself creating thousands of new jobs, is one of the culprits. Another is the Obama administration. Even as Obama's EPA quietly develops new regulations on hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") that will impede the natural gas boom, it wants to further appease environmentalists by delivering a coup de grace to domestic coal use. It is a silly idea that will ultimately have no environmental benefit, but it is sure to drive up electricity costs.
In order to survive, the domestic coal industry has sharply ramped up exports of its product to countries that are happy to burn it. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, coal exports from the U.S. have risen by nearly 200 percent since Obama took office. Exports have grown so fast that they are about halfway toward making up for recent decreases in domestic coal consumption.
So at best, this forthcoming regulation will just shift carbon emissions from the United States to other parts of the world, where they may even be more harmful. The same coal will probably be burned with fewer environmental controls, since U.S. coal plants have made great strides in reducing pollutants such as sulfur and lead. The EIA projects that, with or without our coal, world demand will double by 2035. So even if Obama can put all U.S. coal producers out of business, the developing world will get its coal somewhere, rendering any U.S. reductions in carbon emissions insignificant.
So what is the point of this pre-election flurry of regulation? It is a time-tested way of complicating the life of an incoming presidential administration. In 2000, the outgoing Clinton administration rushed out a finding that mercury emissions from power plants were a growing public health threat under the Clean Air Act. Thirteen years later, the resulting proposed rule is set to cost the economy $10 billion annually, according to the EPA itself. And that is just one example among many.
So if Obama loses the election on Tuesday, he'll go out with a gift to his pals in the environmental movement -- and a thumb in the eye to coal country and electricity consumers.