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I was disappointed during the election when many environmental writers downplayed the role of Environmental Protection Agency regulation on coal. It was a timid response to the "war on coal" hype.

Sure, there's not exactly a war on coal. There's a war to save modern civilization as we know it from climate change disasters. The coal industry just happens to be on the pro-ending-modern-civilization side.

The argument downplaying EPA action bothered me. First, because I think it was somewhat disingenuous. You can't honestly go from bragging one week about how many proposed coal plants activists have stopped, often by using EPA regulation as a tool, and the next week pretending the movement doesn't exist. It's the kind of defensive, weak-kneed messaging that gives tree-huggers and liberals a bad reputation. The low price of natural gas may be the bigger factor in determining the future of coal, but compliance with regulation is an important part of the cost/benefit analysis companies do when making decisions about building or retiring coal plants.

That rhetorical retreat was troubling because EPA may be our last best hope of dealing with carbon pollution during the next 2-4 years. The climate change movement will be forced to rediscover their conviction to cheer EPA action as a positive.

It's not hard to see why. The House is still controlled by a Republican majority in the pockets of oil and coal. Even though most of them campaigned on being bipartisan, they made similar promises in 2008. We saw how that turned out.

The Senate has a small Democratic majority, but the Democratic caucus still includes fossil fuel Senators like Mary Landrieu and Joe Manchin. Plus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems uninterested in exposing oil and coal Democrats to controversial votes. He refused to bring cap-and-trade to the floor two years ago because it didn't have 60 votes to pass, but then allowed three failed votes on stripping EPA authority to limit carbon emissions.

So, a big legislative solution like cap-and-trade is about as realistic as "clean coal." I've seen suggestions about a carbon tax. As much as Congressional Republicans hate the idea of any tax increase, I can only imagine the category 5 hissy fit they would throw over a tax increase to deal with a problem they won't even admit exists. I'd be happy to see someone try, but I won't hold my breath.

What I'll hold out small hope for in Congress is another jobs bill focused on energy efficiency, improving the grid, and promoting renewables. That was the best part of the stimulus bill, and we need another big round of green jobs spending in term II. Preferably, they should target spending in coal regions to offset job losses.

Help Me EPA

That leaves us with the authority a previous, more functional Congress already granted EPA to limit air pollutants. Obama moved forward with expanded EPA protections after Congress failed to act during his first two years in office. Some regulations have been stalled, like CSAPR. That needs to be completed along with better rules on mountaintop removal, coal ash, and air emissions like carbon.

My number one hope for Obama's second term is that he moves forward much more aggressively with EPA limits on deadly coal pollution.

Combine that with Obama's campaign comments and this is what a second term energy policy could look like:

  • Renewed effort to cut oil subsidies.
  • More spending on energy efficiency.
  • Extending clean energy production tax credit.
  • More mass transit spending through transportation budget.
  • Renewed call for a clean energy portfolio standard.
  • Hopefully combine that with more aggressive air regulation and a green jobs bill to speed up the transition to new energy sources.

That plan may be better than a cap-and-trade bill filled with special deals for oil and coal lobbyists.

Of course, even that won't be easy because major pieces would still require Congressional action. During the next four years, environmentalists and progressives will have to work out whether they can play a role in promoting positive action by Obama and EPA, or whether they will limit themselves to nursing every disappointment, as so many pundits and bloggers did during his first term.

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