GLOBE EDITORIAL: To glimpse the future of oil, look at coal in the U.S. (Globe and Mail – August 8, 2015)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and we’re the last generation that can do something about it,” Barack Obama said on Monday. The President backed up his words with the Clean Power Plan, a White House initiative that will almost certainly end coal-fired electricity production in the United States in the next decade.

There are five lessons in the announcement for Canada, which recently signed on to the G7 commitment to “decarbonize” the global economy by the end of the century.

Lesson 1: Greenhouse-gas emissions are a legitimate public-health issue. Mr. Obama has done an end run around Congress and unilaterally set regulations to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from electricity production by 32 per cent (compared with levels in 2005) by the year 2030.

He can do this under the Clean Air Act, which obliges the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate any pollutant that is a danger to public health. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that large amounts of carbon dioxide qualify as a dangerous pollutant, since they lead to climate change.

The threat of climate change is not often put in terms of human health and well-being in Canada; it is usually portrayed as a battle between our energy sector and the health of the environment. While the threat to human health is implicit in that, the White House has made it explicit. And that’s sobering.

Lesson 2: Fossil fuels have limited lifetimes, and not just because they eventually run out like any non-renewable resource. If their price or the price of their pollution is raised, they become more costly and less likely to be removed from the ground in the first place.

Critics call Mr. Obama’s plan a “war on coal” – which, let’s face it, is exactly what it is. Coal-fired power plants are the single biggest carbon-dioxide producers in the U.S. – they account for more than 30 per cent of total emissions. Something had to be done if the U.S. planned to meet its emission-reduction goals.

But Mr. Obama is really only delivering the coup de grâce – the U.S. coal industry was already on the wane. Coal is extremely dirty and can be expensive to mine, and much of it is burned in inefficient, outdated plants.

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