New EPA rules should force coal to clean up its act

New EPA rules should force coal to clean up its act

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Coal companies, with state officials, business groups and climate change-denying Republicans right behind them, rushed to gripe about the federal government’s new emissions standards, which won’t even be released until today (Monday, June 2).

“It’s a war on coal” has been their steady mantra. “We see [the EPA rules] as part of a grander strategy on the part of the Obama administration to eliminate coal as an energy source. If you take away our customers, you take away our industry,” Travis Deti, associate director of the Wyoming Mining Association, told the Casper Star-Tribune.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce claimed President Barack Obama’s new carbon regulations will cost the American economy $50 billion between now and 2030. The EPA, Public Citizen, and many environmental groups rushed to the media to denounce the Chamber’s analysis.

“The Chamber has a long record of releasing reports that cry wolf (about EPA rules) and is invariably wrong,” said David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Other organizations noted the switch from coal to natural gas and renewable energy sources have the potential to create many new jobs in production and developing new technology, ultimately improving the economy in addition to cleaning up the air we breathe.

In January, when the first proposed coal rules were published in the Federal Register, Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso predictably decried the action. “The EPA just announced another regulation that will increase poverty in coal country,” he said. “In addition to contradicting current law, this new regulation will put more Americans out of work and make it even harder for people to provide for their families.”

Expect more of the same from our congressional delegation this week and beyond.

It’s difficult to believe the coal industry thinks it has much of a chance to gain the public’s sympathy with its campaign against the “war,” even though Wyoming state and federal officials rush to defend the industry at every opportunity.

For starters, it’s not a war; the new EPA rules are a logical reaction to immense environmental problems the United States has ignored far too long.

Second, the coal industry and states like Wyoming and Virginia, where mining is king, have had plenty of time to plan for this day, when the federal government finally takes some action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The notion they didn’t see this coming for many years and were caught off-guard is absolutely laughable.

Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, and seven years later, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order. Ever since then, the coal industry has fought and won nearly every attempt to significantly clean up its act. With state officials and other industries and businesses also lobbying against strong carbon emission standards, coal mine owners acted like they were too big and influential to be regulated.

But things began to change in 2007, when EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson was about to release a document that acknowledged global warming was real and imperiled the public welfare of the entire nation. It was leaked to the White House, where staffers for President George W. Bush realized it would trigger mandatory global-warming regulations.

Johnson was forced to issue another report that didn’t mention global warming, then resigned in protest. The Bush administration won that battle, but scientists began to voice their support for what Johnson had advocated.

At that point, it should have been obvious to the coal moguls that their industry was going to change, and if they wanted to survive they needed to make a serious effort to reduce CO2 emissions. The coal industry is by far the worst polluter among all fossil fuels used to generate electricity, and new technology was needed to make their product much more environmentally friendly.

There have been efforts to create new technology that reduce emissions, including storing CO2 underground. But most of these attempts have been woefully underfinanced by industry and the feds to develop commercially viable technology.

Instead, industry mounted its “clean coal” campaign. It consisted of putting the word “clean” in front of the word “coal,” using the phrase repeatedly, until people heard it so often they began to believe it had actually happened. While countries like China became leaders in the real movement to produce cleaner coal — while also wisely developing more wind power — the U.S. coal producers relied on a gimmick and the misguided idea they were invincible.

They’re not. So instead of continually whining about a fake “war on coal,” the industry should start looking for ways to invest enough money into actually producing significantly cleaner coal. And they should count their blessings, because things could be a lot worse.

Some environmentalists and scientists think EPA’s new coal rules aren’t nearly stringent enough, so while Obama is getting hammered daily on the issue by the right, the left isn’t exactly happy, either.

Hopefully, the new carbon rules will do what they were intended to do: accelerate the nation’s shift from coal to natural gas and renewable energy. They could be stronger, but they will result in positive changes for the environment, because they’re definitely a move in the right direction.

“No president has ever proposed a climate pollution cleanup this big,” proclaimed Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress. The new rules would go far beyond an EPA proposal last year to limit emissions from new plants.

But the rules are hardly going into effect overnight, which is another reason the coal industry should stop complaining so much. States will have a year to submit plans for how they will obtain the targeted CO2 reductions. Then they have to be reviewed by the EPA, which could be a lengthy process. Whatever the agency decides, the issue will probably be challenged in court.

Even before the EPA rules are announced, the coal industry has been in a downward spiral. It went from producing 52 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2000 to 37 percent in 2012. During that period, natural gas’s share of the market nearly doubled.

The new rules won’t be “draconian,” as some coal supporters suggest. Coal will survive; the question is at what level will it stabilize? By producing a cleaner product, the industry has an opportunity to remain a viable energy producer, even if it will never be King Coal again. But like everyone else, it has to compete with other developers. Isn’t that what the free market is supposed to be about?



  1. We are talking about coal burned to make electricity. As usual this comes too late to the party. The technology to clean up coal fired power plant emissions has existed for decades but as always the industry has stood in the way of it’s implementation.
    Given the life cycle of a thermal plant it often makes little sense to invest in pollution control or convert to another fuel. Don’t be surprised to see the state’s major electric utility begin to idle it’s plants in Wyoming. This will shunt Wyoming coal elsewhere; mostly overseas. In addition Berkshire Hathaway is in the process of parting up it’s holdings prior to Warren Buffet’s departure to retirement.
    However having said all of this coal is no where near dead yet. It’s just in a slow spiral of becoming less and less of a player. The alternatives are either too poorly vetted or not really much better in terms of pollution to yet be the panacea.
    The electric industry will insist that these regulations will drive up costs but when was the last time you saw a rate reduction? The GOP will insist that jobs will be lost but in reality this is a natural occurence as old technology becomes obsolete and if they could have outsourced the industry the jobs would have disappeared long ago.
    As with Obama Care it’s not perfect but it’s a start.

    • Well said! You saved me a whole lot of typing, thanks! Even back when I worked for a subcontractor at the Jim Bridger Power Plant, everyone knew that there was a safer way to use coal to generate electricity, but we also knew that the owners would rather pocket the profits than benefit the environment and the people and animals who depend on it! We were about due for a minor win! Just thinking about the sputtering Enzi and Barrasso will do made my day!

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