WASHINGTON – As governors, businesses and environmentalists brace for new limits on power plant pollution, President Obama is casting his unprecedented effort to curb greenhouse gases as essential to protect the health and wellbeing of children.
"I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that's beyond fixing," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address released Saturday. His administration is bringing forward the first carbon pollution limits on existing U.S. power plants on Monday, the centerpiece of his campaign against climate change. Critics say the plan will drive up costs, kill jobs and damage a fragile economy.
Traditionally, the president records his weekly address at the White House. But Obama put the usual playbook aside on Friday and traveled to Children's National Medical Center, where medical equipment and white lab coats formed the backdrop for Obama to argue that by targeting carbon dioxide, his administration is shifting the U.S. away from dirty fuels that dump harmful pollutants into the air. He also met young asthma patients there, the White House said.
"In America, we don't have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children," he said.
White House officials have been fanning out across Washington and the country to build support and reassure those concerned about the coming rules. Among those worried: a number of Democrats from conservative areas who have openly criticized the rules as they prepare for difficult re-election fights this fall. Obama will echo his argument that the rules will benefit public health during a conference call Monday organized by the American Lung Association and other health groups.
The specifics of the plan have been closely guarded and environmental advocates and industry representatives alike are anxiously awaiting details such as the size of the reductions the government will mandate and what baseline those reductions will be measured against.
"We all want clean air and clean water," Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming said in the weekly GOP address. "We don't want costly regulations that make little or no difference, that are making things less affordable. Republicans want electricity and gas when you need it, at a price you can afford."
But Obama accused special interests and likeminded lawmakers of repeating false claims about harmful economic effects from the new rules, which the EPA is already preparing to defend in court once the inevitable legal challenges roll in. Every time the U.S. has sought to clean up its air and water, cynics have cried wolf, only to be proved wrong, Obama said.
"These excuses for inaction somehow suggest a lack of faith in American businesses and American ingenuity," Obama said. "The truth is, when we ask our workers and businesses to innovate, they do. When we raise the bar, they meet it."
Obama asserted that in their first year in effect, the rules will prevent up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks. In fact, scientists have said there's no direct connection between greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and asthma attacks or other respiratory illnesses. But coal-fired power plants that emit high levels of greenhouse gases also pump other pollutants into the air that do affect health.
By drawing a link between the carbon rules and asthma, the White House is offering a nuanced argument: Over time, these rules will shift the U.S. away from coal and toward cleaner energy, indirectly reducing levels of other harmful pollutants.
Deploying that argument could embolden Republicans in their assertions that Democrats are waging a "war on coal" — a claim that Obama and his allies deny.
Power plants form the largest single source of heat-trapping greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. Administration officials say the rules will give states mandatory standards, then allow flexibility on how they are achieved.