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Obama climate speech falls flat with Arkansas delegation

Arkansas’ congressional delegation offered a chilly response Tuesday to President Barack Obama’s latest call to action on global warming.

Reaction from the state’s business and environmental communities was mixed.

Obama outlined a “new national climate action plan” during a speech at Georgetown University that would set higher pollution standards for power plants and stress renewable energy.

He also urged the State Department to weigh the impact that the Keystone XL Pipeline would have on climate change as a condition of approval.

“We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society,” Obama said. “Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., raised concerns that the Obama administration has failed to consider the full economic impact of its proposals.

“President Obama shouldn’t hamper America’s domestic energy potential by picking winners and losers,” he said. “We need to implement a comprehensive national energy strategy that takes advantage of all our resources. And that includes the Keystone pipeline.”

TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project is designed to carry tar sands crude from Canada to Gulf Coast refiners. The State Department is expected to issue a decision later this year on whether to approve it.

“The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward,” Obama said.

The Arkansas congressional delegation has supported the Keystone pipeline in large measure because the steel pipe would come from Welspun Tubular in Little Rock.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, suggested the need for balance between environmental concerns and economic interests. And, he said that a unilateral approach to climate change would be fruitless.

“There needs to be worldwide consensus and Washington needs to work with developing and underdeveloped areas where they’re creating even more of an atmospheric problem even than the United States,” Beebe said.

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, called the proposal “a full-blown assault on American energy” that would impose a crippling energy tax on the nation.

“They would force 13 of Arkansas’s 14 active power plants to close their doors, cause energy prices to skyrocket, and put thousands across the Natural State out of work,” Cotton said.

Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to complete new pollution standards for new and existing power plants that include restrictions on carbon emissions.

“Power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop,” Obama said.

Glenn Hooks, a representative of Arkansas Sierra Club, said the group was “especially pleased” that Obama emphasized reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants, including three coal-fired plants in Arkansas - Entergy’s White Bluff and Independence plants and SWEPCO’s Flint Creek plant.

“Today’s announcement squarely addresses these dirty plants and will go a long way toward protecting Arkansan’s health from dangerous coal pollution,” Hooks said.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, criticized Obama for proposing more restrictions on energy production that he said will amount to a back-door tax on energy.

“People like you and I don’t belong to the ‘Flat Earth Society’ as the President accused; we simply live in the real world and recognize the need for and the value of an all-of-the-above energy policy, which I will continue to support,” he said.

Obama also drew heat from Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, for raising additional hurdles to construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

“They have met all the standards asked of them and it has been a very, very rigorous process,” Boozman said. “The only reason not to do this is that he (Obama) doesn’t appear to like fossil fuels.”

“We need an affordable, all-American energy policy that promotes job growth here at home and makes us less dependent on energy sources abroad,” Griffin said.

Walmart President and CEO Mike Duke spoke favorably of Obama’s commitment to renewable energy and conservation, saying that such investments are “good for business.”

“When we use less energy, that’s less energy we have to buy, and that means less waste and more savings for our customers,” Duke said.

Walmart has more than 300 renewable energy projects in operation or under development around the world as it strives to become entirely supplied by renewable energy, he said.

“We will continue to leverage our scale in purchasing energy so we can drive down technology costs and make renewable power more affordable for everyone,” Duke said.

Boozman said he does support Obama on the need to tap renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, but he said imposing “draconian” regulations on coal, oil or gas would do grave harm to the national economy.

“In Arkansas you would be looking at significant increases in electricity prices as we are trying to build our manufacturing base,” Boozman said.

Sandra Byrd, a vice president of the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp., warned that the aggressive actions and fast-track for implementation would have a detrimental impact on Arkansas.

“We have great concerns about this,” said Byrd, a former chairman of the states Public Service Commission. “It’s definitely not going to be good for rural Arkansas or rural America.”

Randy Zook, CEO for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce-Associated Industries of Arkansas, called Obama’s plan an “an unprecedented attack on jobs” that would take the state’s and country’s economy backwards.

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Arkansas News Bureau reporter John Lyon and business columnist Roby Brock contributed to this report.

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