A cornerstone of Obama’s action plan on climate change, announced in June, is to have strict new standards on the CO2 emitted from coal power plants. This is an important step given that coal combustion represents 28% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US. However, the announcement provoked strong opposition from Republicans and senators representing coal-rich states such as West Virginia. Republican Mitch McConnell labelled the move a “War on coal”. He added, “This is a huge step in the wrong direction, particularly in the middle of the most tepid recovery after a deep recession in anyone’s memory.”

Photo: Washington Post

But would a Thatcheresque closure of the coal mines necessarily result in America’s economic demise? The answer depends on what replaces coal. If the alternative is mainly shale gas, then the US economy could be strengthened. According to Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, shale gas has already saved Americans $125bn a year in energy prices.

If the alternative is mainly renewables, then the fears could be more legitimate; subsidies for renewable energy already cost the US economy tens of billions of dollars each year. This is not to say that renewable energy is a bad idea: given sufficient research and development, wind and solar could undercut the price of coal power within decades. In fact, Obama has rightly announced in his plan $7.9 billion of investment into renewable energy innovation for 2014.

Many environmentalists attacked the president’s support for fracking, the technique used to extract shale gas, on the grounds that shale gas is essentially just another climate-warming fossil fuel. Yet the fracking boom has actually reduced the US’s annual CO2 emissions by 500 Megatons, which is double the entire reduction made so far under the Kyoto Protocol in the rest of the world. This is because the volume of shale gas was enough to lead a major transition away from coal, which is significantly more carbon-intensive than gas.

Although politically risky, Obama’s favouring of shale gas over coal represents a wise move for limiting climate change. And a large decline the US coal industry is by no means inevitable because the action plan earmarks $8.2bn into funding technologies such as carbon capture and storage. Catching the CO2 from the power plants means that coal use can continue, albeit at a higher price; but a price worth paying if Americans genuinely wish to join a “War on climate change.”