Washington politics has played a key role in both the nation’s rush toward coal-fired energy and the current pullbacks and delays.
During his 2000 run for the White House, George W. Bush promised to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, curbing emissions that contribute to climate change.
But he reversed course shortly after taking office in 2001, saying that Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy policy task force had advised against it.
Bush campaign strategist and former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour had been hired by several electricity producers to lobby for the turnabout. “Most Americans thought Bush-Cheney would mean more energy and more affordable energy,” he wrote to the vice president. The U-turn on carbon emissions was a huge boost for coal.
Two years later, coal power got another endorsement when Bush’s Energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, urged at a natural-gas summit that coal be burned for electricity to save tight supplies of natural gas for home heating and chemical plants.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration was downplaying the role of carbon dioxide emissions in climate change, even editing testimony and documents to cast doubt on the effect of energy production on global warming.
The federal government has poured $2.5 billion into “clean coal” technology, which focuses not on carbon dioxide but on three pollutants that pour from coal-fired smokestacks: nitrogen oxides, sulfur and mercury. Without costly carbon dioxide emissions controls, coal could be promoted as by far the cheapest way to make electricity.
The equation shifted when the Democrats won control of both chambers of Congress last year, prompting expectations of some kind of carbon cap within a few years.
Initially, the rush to build coal-fired plants actually picked up speed.
Environmentalists speculated that utilities were hoping that any power plants in progress before a global warming bill was passed would be grandfathered in and not subjected to emissions restrictions.
But Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico -- the chairs, respectively, of the environment and energy committees -- co-wrote an article last January warning that existing power plants would not get a pass from any new law aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
That appeared to be the last straw for the utility industry and regulators, already beset by the soaring cost of power plant construction and coal, and by significant transportation problems.
A series of cancellations of coal-fired plants soon followed.