Even modest regulations draw cries of a 'war on coal' from fossil fuel industry

On Monday, the House Energy & Commerce Committee, as part of its ongoing agenda to bash the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the agency’s “global warming agenda,” held a hearing in Abingdon, Va., with the heads of several powerful energy companies to hear from them how they believe they would be affected by the EPA’s new proposed emissions standards for coal-fired power plants. Abington, a coal mining community, appeared to be an ideal location for witness Thomas Farrell, CEO of the Dominion power company, to tell members of Congress that America is doomed to permanent recession and mass unemployment unless the Obama administration’s “war on coal” is stopped.  Of course, what he failed to mention was that Washington County, where Abingdon is located, asked the state governor on July 11t to declare the county a disaster area due to record-setting drought and temperatures.[i]

The Big Business anti-regulation agenda is disconnected from reality; it not only opposes new drilling safeguards after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy but it resists curbing carbon emissions in the face of climate change manifestations.  It’s not shocking that the coal industry opposes new rules that hurt its bottom line, but our elected officials should be supporting standards that protect the health and safety of their constituency, more than 2 million of whom submitted comments in support of regulating carbon emission from power plants.

Industry-Preservation

In his testimony, Mr. Farrell predictably suggested that the cap of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt be doubled to 2,000 lbs and that different standards be set for each kind of fuel. As a predominantly coal-burning utility, Dominion clearly sees this standard as a boon to natural gas, which is the only fuel able to meet the standard with current technology. Since the standard as it exists now is designed for coal-fired power to remain viable on with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, Mr. Farrell makes a not-so subtle pitch for a get-out-of-jail-free card and more government subsidies to adapt this technology, saying “there remain legal, regulatory and technical obstacles to deploying CCS on a utility scale that will be overcome only with a comprehensive federal strategy that includes funding, permitting and liability protections [emphasis added].”

Protecting Coal!?

In his opening statement,  Energy and Power subcommittee chair, Ed Whitfield, set the hearing stage by saying, “If I were to point to a single Obama administration policy that I want to stop more than anything else, it would have to be the war on coal.

He then proceeds to lament the advancement of protections related to coal waste and air pollutants, adding “The agency tells us we need these measures to protect us from global warming, but in my view the cure is considerably worse than the disease.” Really!?

In wrapping up his opening statement, Whitfield takes a huge swing and a miss at the recent federal court decision to uphold the EPA’s responsibility to regulate climate change-causing pollutants, he concluded, “Overall, we can’t rely on the courts to save our economy and preserve our way of life.  Congress needs to act to protect coal and those who depend on it.”[ii]

Weak from the Start

Mr. Farrel fails to emphasis the generous loopholes in the standard as it currently exists. Any and all plants that have permits to begin construction within one year of the proposal being introduced are exempt from the new standard. This grace period encourages companies to expedite plans for new construction projects to avoid the new restrictions, which will ultimately result in the standard having less impact on greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, this time pressure will make it more likely that regulators will approve projects without adequately thorough reviews, leading to future problems and expenses. The standard also does nothing about existing electrical generating units (EGU’s). Despite the current boom in natural gas, coal is still likely to provide a large portion of the base power supply in many places across America for many years to come. To maximize greenhouse gas reductions and their effects on climate change, similar standards are needed for existing EGU’s that will continue to operate for years and even decades to come.

The standard seems to be putting a huge amount of faith in the viability and widespread adaptation of CCS technology to keep some measure of coal-fired energy viable while still achieving greenhouse gas reductions. On this issue, Mr. Farrell is actually correct to be worried about the costs and implementation of this technology.  To get around the fact that CCS technology is as of yet unproven, the standard allows firms to build a plant and delay installation of CCS for as long as 11 years if they can demonstrate that the 30 year average emissions of the plant will ultimately be lower than if no CCS were installed. This free pass for merely the promise of implementing CCS technology later is a clear recipe for delayed action on the development of this technology and an incentive for utilities to fudge numbers on how much carbon they really are emitting.

The Real Bottom Line

Coal-fired power is the single largest source of global greenhouse gases, which are creating climate-altering crisis in every corner of the globe, from record flooding in Bangladesh to massive wildfires in Colorado. Communities where coal is mined and burned not only suffer from these global climate disturbances, but from far more individual and acute health problems associated with coal, essentially getting a double whammy. In Virginia for example, the non-governmental, The Clean Air Task Force determined that in 2010, fine particulate pollution from coal power plants resulted in 647 preventable deaths (the sixth highest rate in the nation) and nearly 900 heart attacks[iii]. The health costs associated with these deaths and other chronic illnesses are in addition to the strain put on these communities by extreme weather such as droughts and floods, which increase costs for farmers.

The notion that coal power is cheap requires that we disregard the costs and consequences to our fellow Americans in coal country who bear a disproportionate amount of the environmental and economic costs of coal. As the effects of climate change become more intense and widespread, it will become harder for all of us to avoid these costs. Left to their own devices, utility companies always will shift as much of this burden as possible on to citizens and taxpayers. We have too little time and too much at stake to allow coal companies to self-regulate. Our leaders need to enact the most effective and enforceable standards possible – at the minimum decision-makers should not be acting in the interest of polluting industries by push policy to dismantle commonsense regulations.

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Eric Miller – intern