A political battle is heating up in Washington over the future of the nation’s cheapest and dirtiest fuel source: coal.
On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will take a step toward implementing President Barack Obama’s climate action plan and propose the first-ever carbon pollution standards for new coal-burning power plants. Reports indicate the rules would require that newly built, coal burning plants meet pollution standards by installing new technology to capture and bury emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas linked to climate change.
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Existing power plants are responsible for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions and one-third of domestic greenhouse gas emissions overall, according to the EPA.
For years, environmental groups have pushed for a federal cap on carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants, but the rule expected Friday will cover only plants that have yet to be built. The EPA is not expected to release new standards for existing plants, which are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, until June 2014.
The coal industry and its conservative allies in the media and Washington have accused the Obama administration and Democrats of waging a job-killing “war on coal” and are fighting both rules tooth and nail. The rule for new facilities, they argue, will make it financially impossible to build new coal-burning power plants and will eliminate coal as fuel source for future generators. Legal challenges to the new rules are all but imminent.
The EPA had originally proposed rules for new plants in March 2012, but missed that deadline and agreed to rework the rules after the industry complained that the original carbon pollution caps were too stringent.
A similar effort by the EPA to cap emissions of toxic chemicals and metals from power plants – which contribute to child asthma, premature deaths and cancer – was stalled for nearly a decade by industry challenges and opposition from Republicans in Congress before being implemented in 2011.
The coal industry is under pressure to stay relevant at a time when public concerns about the climate crisis are at an all-time high and the price of natural gas, a cleaner burning option for utility generators, has dropped because of the recent gas rush facilitated by fracking.
On Wednesday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz assured a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that the new rules do not mark the end of coal in America. And in terms of existing facilities, coal will continue to represent a significant source of energy for decades to come,” McCarthy said.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican from the coal-heavy state of Kentucky, argued in a statement that the new rules would drive up energy costs and potentially make the United States the only country where new coal-burning power plants could not be built. Last week, Whitfield released a white paper accusing the EPA of regulatory overreach and the Obama administration of bypassing Congress.
When questioned by the subcommittee, Moniz said that the Department of Energy (DOE) would provide billions of dollars to help energy firms find new ways to reduce carbon emissions, including carbon-capture and -storage technology.
The DOE has spent billions since Obama took office to develop carbon-capture technology, which involves capturing carbon pollution, liquefying it and pumping it deep underground. No power generators have installed a full-scale capture system because it’s not yet commercially available at an affordable price.
Meanwhile, America’s aging fleet of existing plants continues to pump carbon dioxide into the air without any federal limits. Much of the pollution comes from a handful of exceptionally dirty plants. There are thousands of power plants across the country, but half of all carbon emissions in 2011 came from the 100 dirtiest coal-burning facilities, according to a recent report by Environment America, which supports the new EPA rules.
In 2010, the top 50 polluting plants in the US emitted as much carbon pollution as more than half of the passenger vehicles driven in America, the report states.