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Coal, Renewable Energy's Dirty Step Child

The war on coal is environmentally sound but the lack of subtlety in getting rid of this dirty energy step child is destructive and natural gas would eventually triumph over coal without hard-hitting regulations.

On 20 June, a resolution in the US Senate seeking to overturn federal regulations that limited toxic mercury and other dangerous emissions from coal-burning power plants failed to pass, with 46 votes for and 53 against. Only five of the Senate’s Democratic majority supported the resolution.

Next week, on 25 June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will unleash its war on coal, which holds that any new coal plants built cannot emit more carbon dioxide than a natural gas plant of comparable size and capacity. According to the EPA, some 56% of coal-fired plants already in existence have the equipment necessary to meet the new requirements. For those that do not, there is a three-year deadline to meet cleaner requirements as laid out by the EPA, with a possible two-year extension in certain cases.  

The reasoning is that natural gas results in around 50% of the carbon dioxide emissions for the same amount of electricity produced by coal. The catch is that in order for a coal plant to meet this carbon dioxide emissions level it must actually burn more coal to allow for the process of diverting its carbon dioxide emissions. This is how the war on coal is being played out – and the regulations are meant to ensure that no new coal plants can be built.

Proponents of the Obama administration’s war on coal stress that this is a necessary move for reasons of public health and the environment. Certainly, they are correct. Coal is a nasty power source that has no place in today’s world.

In terms of public health, the EPA estimates that its proposed regulations will result in $90 billion in healthcare savings annually and, more specifically, prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma every year.

Opponents of the EPA’s proposed regulations argue that the war on coal will cost more jobs than America can afford to lose, and that it will result in an increase in energy prices. Job loss is inevitable, and there is a strong chance that the immediate result could be a temporary increase in energy prices.

The EPA’s plan is a massively expensive one; indeed, the EPA estimates that it will cost $9.6 billion in 2015—costs that would be passed on to the consumer causing temporary increases in electricity prices.

The politics, of course, is the main driver. These coal-emissions regulations were a key point of Obama’s national address in January, and the passage of the Senate resolution to reverse the EPA’s proposed regulations would have been a slap in the face for the incumbent.

Interestingly, Senator Jay Rockefeller's (D-West Virginia) came out in support of the EPA’s regulation despite the general consensus against the “war on coal” in West Virginia. He made a significant point: "I don't support this Resolution of Disapproval because it does nothing to embrace coal's potential," Rockefeller said. "It moves us backward, not forward.  And unless this industry aggressively leans into the future, coal miners will lose the most. It's not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future. We need a bold partner, innovation and major public and private investments."

It is unfair to blame the closure of coal plants on emissions regulations alone—coal’s biggest enemy right now is natural gas. But herein we can find another point about the Obama administration’s “war on coal”: it needs to be approached with much more subtlety, which is rare in an election year, allowing more room for the market to take its natural course, which is increasingly anti-coal.

By. Jen Alic of Oilprice.com

Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.




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  • gilbert EA on June 23 2012 said:
    While coal may be on its way out for some, its forced exit is going to be problematic for a number of communities. Coal still accounts for over 30% of energy in the US, making this what appears to be a sudden interruption a shock to a number of businesses and the employees that work for them (http://bit.ly/K4z5gc). Perhaps it would be better if we had some kind of a real transition process from coal to other fuel sources. Without it both the communities who rely on this kind of fuel and the people who work in these industries stand to suffer a bit.

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