Stranded Carbon Democrats

  • Date: 04/06/14
  • The Wall Street Journal

Obama’s new EPA rule hits some states much harder than others. All of which makes the stakes for energy policy much larger than usual this election year.

One consequence of President Obama’s new anticarbon energy rule will be to create what economists call “stranded assets,” in this case still useful fossil-fuel plants that are suddenly made noneconomic. This is part of the plan. But if this grand design ultimately fails, it will be because Mr. Obama is also creating stranded Democrats from energy-producing states.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s mammoth rule is an important political moment because it shows that national Democrats have come down decisively on the side of modern environmentalists over the working-class voters who were once their base. The richer coasts dominated by gentry liberals now trump the union jobs of the Midwest. Finance (New York and San Francisco) is more honored than manufacturing (Ohio and Indiana), notwithstanding the vestigial Democratic rhetoric about “made in America.” Tom Steyer of Farallon Capital fame has trounced Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers.

This will have far-reaching implications, especially for Democrats in energy-rich states and especially this year. Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton would never have dreamed of rolling out this EPA regulation five months before an election. Mr. Obama is willing to risk it now because his second term is winding down and he wants to put in place as a much of a legacy as he can. But he’s also gambling that money from green liberals like Mr. Steyer can help stave off the loss of the Senate in energy states.

The nearby table shows the disparate impact—to borrow a liberal phrase—that the new Obama carbon rule will have across the country. In May 2013 the U.S. Energy Information Administration measured the “carbon intensity” of the economy in the 50 states and District of Columbia from 2000 to 2010. The table shows the comparative data for 2010, the latest year available, for the 10 states with the least and most carbon intensity. [...]

There is one political catch, however, and that is the composition of the Senate, where North Dakota gets as many votes as California. That reality might haunt Democrats this year because they are trying to hold or gain Senate seats in Kentucky, West Virginia, Montana, Alaska and Louisiana, among other right-leaning states. If voters ever figure out what Mr. Obama’s carbon rule really means to their state economies, Democrats would lose every one.

So it’s no surprise that the Democrats running in those states are already denouncing the new EPA rule as if it had been written by some alien force.

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