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EPA Proposes Strict Emissions Limits on Future Power Plants

Industry, GOP Cry Foul, but Enviros Say New Rules Don't Not Make Much Difference Since Coal's Already on Its Way Out

The US Environmental Protection Agency today proposed the first-ever federal standards to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, a key source of climate change-causing carbon dioxide emissions.

Photo by Bruno D RodriguesThe proposed new rules concern only new units that will be built in the future. Existing power plants
and those that have already been cleared by the EPA are exempt from the restrictions.

Fossil fuel-fired power plants are responsible for 40 percent of the man-made CO2 emissions in the US. They are also a major source of air and water pollution, contributing to smog, acid rain, and mercury contamination of lakes, streams and fish.

The proposed new rules — that require fossil fuel-fired electricity generating units restrict their emissions to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity produced — concern only new units that will be built in the future. Existing power plants (about 300) and those that are in the works and have already been cleared by the EPA are exempt from the restrictions.

Standard coal-fired power plants currently emit 1,800 to 2,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. The US has the largest coal reserves in the world; coal currently supplies 40 percent of the nation’s electricity.

As expected, opponents to the regulation, including GOP leaders, expressed outrage and accused the Obama administration of trying to eliminate a vital source of homegrown energy since the move could essentially ban the construction of new conventional coal-fired power plants. But environmentalists say the regulations will not have much effect since coal-fired power is already on its way out.

Ted Nace, author of Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal and director of Earth Island’s Coal Swarm project emailed me a pretty succinct analysis this morning that’s worth reproducing:

"The new EPA rules would affect only new coal plants. It's actually a pretty strict standard but it is irrelevant since no new coal plants are being proposed. It is essentially the same as California's Schwarzenegger clause that limits coal plants to no more than the output of a natural gas plant (1100 lb CO2/MWh). This is unreachable without carbon capture and storage, a technology that is not commercially available. The regulations are also of no consequence because the grassroots mobilization to stop coal in the United States has already succeeded beyond all expectations in derailing the coal boom, which only five years ago was planning 151 new coal plants.

"Like nuclear plants, coal plants are now an obsolete option for utilities — simply too expensive and inflexible for today's needs. These days any executive who is clueless enough to propose a coal plant at a utility planning meeting will receive the same dead stares around the table as if they were proposing a nuke.

"Coal and nukes are as obsolete as the office furniture on Mad Men. Twice as much new wind capacity has gone into operation over the past five years as coal and nuclear capacity combined. Photovoltaic costs are dropping by 20 percent every 18 months, and PV [ie, solar power] is expected to be the cheapest power option for most of the world by 2018. No new coal plants broke ground in 2011. In fact, utilities are rapidly retiring them — since 2010 at least 106 of the 600 plants in the country have been scheduled for shutdown, including plants at 19 colleges. Twice as many people are now building solar and wind facilities as are mining coal.

"Coal consumption dropped by 11 percent between 2007 and 2011. Only three states — West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania — now have more than 8,000 people employed mining coal. The last hope of the coal industry is to export the stuff — that fight has just begun but I certainly wouldn't bet on coal. Nor are the markets: prices for shares in coal companies like Peabody and Arch are down by 50 percent or more since early 2011."

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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Maureen: Would you mind telling Ted that those of us in Hampton Roads have been fighting a proposed 1500 MW coal-fired power plant for the last 3+ years? It would be nice if there were no more new plants… but that’s not exactly accurate.
Many thanks,
Misti Furr

By Misti Furr on Wed, March 28, 2012 at 9:54 am

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