The Environmental Protection Agency this week proposed measures that it said would cut emissions for new power plants. Critics are lining up to say this marks the end of coal-fired power generation in the United States and in some ways they may be right. Despite the fervor over things like the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the fracking of natural gas, coal still dominates the energy sector and has been since at least the 1960s. While critics of the EPA's proposals may have a point, is that necessarily a bad thing?
The Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Now, the EPA has proposed rules that would curtail the development of new coal-fired power plants unless they are designed to include what could be costly technology to capture carbon dioxide. While that's cheap for natural gas-driven power production, it could, in theory, price new coal power out of the market.
Opinions on the measure were divided largely along political boundaries in the United States. Critics, like Michigan's Fred Upton, said the EPA was effectively imposing a tax on U.S. consumers through its "attack on America’s power sector." The EPA's Lisa Jackson, however, said the proposal is a "common-sense step" that will reduce air pollution. The Union of Concerned Scientists, meanwhile, said the measure was historic but actually missed the mark in some aspects. They say the EPA should also set its sights on existing coal-fired power plants, which account for about 40 percent of the carbon emissions.
What's telling in the UCS comments is that the EPA said little about existing coal-fired plants in the United States. As the UCS says, it's those plants that are responsible for most of the pollution. For India, whose economic growth in the last decade "has been quite remarkable," the IEA warned that coal might not be the best answer for the country because of "the millions of people affected by local pollution. For the United States, a global economic leader in its own right, maybe tighter proposals against coal would force the domestic energy sector to lock step with the green ambitions embraced by many of its global partners.
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in his majority opinion in Massachusetts et al. v Environment Protection Agency et al., ruled that the Clean Air Act by "congressional design" forces the EPA to take action against environmental pollutants like CO2. With Jackson's proposal, that's just what the EPA did – it followed the letter of the law. While the UCS is right to note that the proposal does nothing for coal-fired plants already in place, it's also a good that the rules would only apply to coal plants not yet built. If it's too expensive to implement, then so be it, but at least it's cheaper than retrofitting aging plants. The proposals could be seen as a win-win if taken with a grain of salt. To say that the days of coal are numbered shouldn’t be a criticism of the proposed EPA legislation but instead heralded as a sign of a new era of energy.
By. Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com