The “War Of Words On Coal” Continues

Yesterday, the EPA presented new rules for power plants emissions, called the Clean Power Plan proposal. These rules are a small part of Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which he is pursuing through executive action. The four building blocks of the EPA’s proposal are:

    • Cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels;
    • Cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide by more than 25 percent as a co-benefit;
    • Avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, and up to 490,000 missed work or school days-providing up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits; and
    • Shrink electricity bills roughly 8 percent by increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand in the electricity system.

(via EPA)

According to the EPA, carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants have decreased by 13 percent since 2005. While different states will be given different emissions quotas, 30 percent is the US’s nationwide goal. States have up to three years to draft plans to meet their goals. Initial compliance plans are due June 30, 2016, but some states will be allotted a one-year extension. States that form multi-state plans will be allotted a two-year extension. If a state decides not to formulate a plan, then the EPA will write one for the state.

The EPA will present a number of options that will help the states meet target goals, such as helping power plants to become more efficient and spending more on sources of renewable energy. Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, and West Virginia have already passed laws that permit their environmental agencies to create unique carbon-emission plans. Louisiana and Ohio are also following suit.

Conservatives have been battling Obama’s climate regulations for months. As the 2014 midterm elections loom right around the corner, conservatives and their industry allies will do anything they can to stir the political pot and anger voters. Voters in states like Kentucky and West Virginia are the determining factor in whether or not the Democrats retain the Senate majority. Many Democrats who are openly against the new rules represent coal-producing states, such as West Virginia Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall—96 percent of his state’s power comes from coal.

The coal industry contends that the new rules will have negative repercussions on the economy, including major damage to coal and manufacturing jobs, increased household electricity costs, and a rising number of brown-outs during extreme heat or cold. The US Chamber of Commerce—opponents of the new regulations—contend that the Clean Power Plan proposal will result in a loss of almost a quarter-million jobs through 2030, will force power plants across the US to shut down, and will inflict $50 billion in yearly costs.


The US depends on coal for 40 percent of its electricity; however, 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions originate from electricity, and within that percentage, coal-fired power plants make up 80% of those emissions. Overall, coal-fired power plants expel 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

While conservatives, and some liberals, see the proposed regulations as an attack on the coal industry, Obama sees it as way to not only clean up our environment, but also as a way to avert a national health crisis. Current climate law is dictated by the decades-old Clean Air Act, which regulates pollutants like soot, mercury, lead, arsenic, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, but not carbon pollution.

The EPA will permit comment on the Clean Power Plan proposal for 120 days after it is published in the Federal Register, and will also conduct public hearings in Denver, Atlanta, Washington DC, and Pittsburgh during the week of July 28. The EPA’s proposed rules won’t be finalized until next year.

Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan

June 2, 2014

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“Imagining Coal Without Air Pollution” – Wall Street Journal, 8 January 2014

While many countries have been working together to reach global environmental goals—such as reducing emissions and increasing use of renewable energies—it often seems like China hasn’t gotten the memo. Due to a growing population, and thus a growing demand for energy, China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions. Over the last few months, many of China’s major cities have had issues with smog—a product of coal-burning power plants—and citizens have been forced to wear face masks.

The US faced similar problems with smog in the late 1960′s and 1970′s, which inspired the formation of the EPA and passed the Clean Air Act. Since then, US electricity utilities reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by over 80% and nitrogen oxides by over 75%, using lower-sulfur coal found in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Now that the government and utilities have successfully kept those emission levels down, they are tackling mercury and greenhouse gas emissions, which means new environmental regulations. As a result, many of the US’s coal-burning power plants will close, since upgrading the plants’ equipment isn’t profitable. Moreover, natural gas releases half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, and natural gas costs have plunged since 2009.

New regulations on mercury has the potential to reduce emissions by almost 90% and cause more power plants to shut their doors. The EPA is handling greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide, by introducing regulations that will more or less disallow utilities to build new coal-burning power plants. The EPA is set to propose new standards for existing power plants and guidelines on greenhouse gas emission levels.

Scientists are trying to find a way to prevent carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, as well as studying the method of cleaning coal prior to combustion. Both have proved costly, though countries with more access to coal and less to natural gas—like China, Pakistan, Indonesia and Australia—have expressed interest in these technologies.

Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan

March 21, 2014

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“Administration Presses Ahead with Limits on Emissions from Power Plants” – New York Times, 19 September 2013

Obama has finally made good on his second inaugural address promise to curb the affects of climate change by limiting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Last Friday, Obama’s new regulations were introduced by the EPA‘s administrator Gina McCarthy, which aim to pass the first federal carbon caps on US power companies.

According to the proposed regulations, new natural gas-fired power plants will be restricted to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour, and new coal plants will be restricted to 1,100 pounds. Coal power plants are also required to install a new technology called “carbon capture and sequestration,” which cleans their emissions of carbon dioxide before the emissions are released. The technology transfers the carbon dioxide into permanent storage underground.

In addition, McCarthy will embark on a yearlong series of meetings across the US, which will engage the public, industry and environmental groups on how the EPA should address emissions restrictions on existing power plants.

Obama has decided to circumvent Congress on his proposed climate change regulations. Republicans argue that the new technology the administration wants to implement is costly and will increase the price of electricity — a technology to cheaply decrease carbon emissions has yet to be developed. Industry representatives contend that the “carbon capture and sequestration” technology has not been employed on a large scale, and violates the Clean Air Act, which requires new regulations to not be costly, while also demonstrating functionality.

The new proposed regulations are more manageable than the administration’s 2012 version, the current version supplying coal plant operators with more time to meet the GHG limits. The EPA has also provided for even more flexibility by allowing plants, existing or new, that install the new technology within one year to meet the 1,100 pound limit. Plant owners also have the choice of incorporating the limits over a seven year period — those who go that route would be obligated to meet a more rigid limit of 1,000-1,050 pounds, averaged over the seven years.

The Energy Information Administration recently reported that 40% of 2012′s greenhouse gas emissions originated from power plants, a bulk of that coming from coal-burning power plants. Existing coal plants currently spew almost 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per hour. Obama wants the GHG limits intact before his second term is over in 2017.

We are glad that some concrete steps have been taken to combat climate change. Obama’s executive order through the EPA is the only way to curb GHG in our overly polarized political environment. EPA action was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court as having legal authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.

Obama and the EPA’s efforts have been vigorously attacked by the coal industry and climate change-deniers. Then again, nothing great has ever been accomplished without strong attack by the negatively affected party — a sign of a well-functioning healthy democracy.

Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan

September 23, 2013

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