WASHINGTON — Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of heat-trapping gases that cause global warming, but President Obama's plan to fight climate change would result in the nation burning more coal a decade from now than it does today.
The administration's plan, the centerpiece of a 700-page legislative package, proposes strict limits on emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide.
But to attract vital support from congressional Democrats representing heavily coal-dependent areas, authors of the legislation, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), have made a series of concessions that substantially soften its effect on coal -- at least over the next decade or so.
As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency projects that even if the emissions limits go into effect, the U.S. would use more carbon-dioxide-heavy coal in 2020 than it did in 2005.
That's because the bill gives utilities a financial incentive to keep burning coal by joining the cap-and-trade system -- a kind of marketplace where polluters could reduce their emissions on paper by buying pollution reductions created by others. These so-called offsets, for example, could be created and sold by farmers who planted trees, which filter carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Environmental groups also say the bill could set off a boom in the construction of new coal plants because of provisions that would restrict legal efforts to block such projects.
Leading Democrats -- and some major conservation groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council -- say the moves have helped attract coal-district Democrats to support the bill without undermining the plan's environmental goals.
"We've ensured a role for coal" in the nation's energy future, said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), one of the leading coal champions in the House.
But some environmentalists remain skeptical that offsets can reduce greenhouse gases to avoid catastrophic warming of the atmosphere.
"This is greens making a deal with the devil," said Ted Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmentalist think tank that recently completed a detailed critique of the bill's coal provisions.
Obama and House leaders "gave the coal guys everything they wanted," said Michael Shellenberger, the institute's president. "The result is legislation that, when all is said and done, will increase coal generation and make it harder to move away from it."
The EPA projects Obama's plan would slow the growth in coal over what would have occurred in the absence of emission limits. Emissions from coal would grow at roughly the same rate as overall coal use, until "clean coal" technology becomes commercially viable.
Under the plan, the EPA projects that after 2020, conventional coal use would begin to fall quickly. That prediction rests on a still-uncertain assumption that new nuclear power plants would begin to come on line.
The analysis also assumes scientists will master advanced technologies that could make coal more attractive from an emissions standpoint. As of now, no one has on a commercial scale.
Obama's Energy Department announced this month that it would spend more than $1 billion to restart a carbon-capture demonstration plant in Mattoon, Ill.
The focus on coal in climate legislation is directly linked to its abundance. Coal has been burned for heat since the time of cavemen. It stoked the smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution and powered the first steam engines. It remains the source of half of the electric power in the United States and is the nation's most abundant fossil fuel.
"Whatever the ideal vision of the future," said David G. Hawkins, director of climate programs for the NRDC, "coal will be there for decades at least."
The coal industry spent $38 million in the 2008 presidential campaign to push its message, and it has succeeded in changing the nature of the debate.
"In the past, there was a drive to use climate policy as a wedge to take coal out of the energy mix," said Joe Lucas, senior vice president of communications for the industry-funded American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. "There's just been a fundamental shift."
Several of the most coal-dependent utilities have endorsed the House bill, but the coal coalition has not -- it wants caps on the price of emission permits, among other amendments. But Lucas said the bill was "closer" than it had ever been to industry acceptance.
Still, most Republicans, particularly those from coal-heavy regions, say the bill is still not a good deal for coal consumers, who include many of the poorest Americans.
"Why is it that the wealthy parts of our country continue to attack the lifestyles of the rural poor?" Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a longtime coal champion, asked at a hearing on the energy bill last month. "If you're going to put a price on carbon emissions now, later or in the future, those that rely on [coal] are going to be harmed."