A First for Obama’s “Stealth Climate Policy”

There’s a piece in today’s Washington Post that doesn’t seem like the biggest news in the world, about how a couple of energy companies have decided to shut down ten aging power plants, mostly coal-fired ones in the Midwest. But it’s actually a huge deal, because it’s the first evidence of the effectiveness of what’s been called Barack Obama’s “stealth climate policy.”

As everyone knows, the administration failed to get its big cap-and-trade bill through the Senate in 2010. That measure would have put a price on carbon emissions and thus exerted market pressure on power companies to shut down their oldest and dirtiest coal-fired facilities. What’s less well known is that last December the EPA passed tough new standards on mercury emissions, which coal-fired plants produce, that environmentalists hoped would have pretty much the same effect. And now those hopes are beginning to come true.

There are still plenty of warnings coming from the utility industry and assorted Republicans that these new rules will lead to electricity blackouts and economic Armageddon. But as Brad Plumer has reported, those claims can be safely ignored.

A funny coda to all this is that Rahm Emanuel, who as White House chief of staff argued strongly against Obama going all-out for the cap-and-trade bill because he thought, probably rightly, it was a loser, is reaping great political benefits from the mercury rule now that he’s mayor of Chicago because two of the soon-to-be-shuttered plants are on Chicago’s South Side.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.