Nearly 3,000 miners and workers from across the coal industry descended on Capitol Hill late last month to protest President Obama’s alleged “War on Coal” — more specifically the proposed carbon emission rules the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released for new power plants, and will release for existing plants in 2014.
The rules, pursuant of the Clean Air Act, would cap carbon emissions at future coal-fired power plants at 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour and 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour for new natural gas power plants. With the average coal-fired power plant emitting around 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, both new and existing power plants would be forced to clean up their act.
The rally was organized by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), which has a history of opposing climate change legislation. Around 30 members of Congress also attended the event, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and even a few coal-country Democrats.
That same day, House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) released a draft bill to cripple the EPA’s ability to implement the proposed rules.
The Whitfield-Manchin bill would “repeal previous greenhouse gas power plant rules proposed by EPA” and compel the EPA to set new rules that, they claim, “are able to be achieved by commercial power plants operating in the real world.”
The EPA currently bases its rules for new plants, and will base its rules for existing plants, on several demonstration projects across the country which it claims will show carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS) to be feasible at scale. The technology is similar to that which has been installed on coal-fired power plants across the country for more than a decade, capturing at least 50 percent of a power plant’s carbon emissions, according to the EPA’s proposal. However, the new CCS technology is not yet commercially viable, and it is tough to say when and if it will ever be. Learn more about the pros and cons of “clean coal” here.
Whitfield has called the EPA’s rules “extreme” and said that his bill would “ensure that we have a national discussion about the use of coal.”
Despite the coal industry’s cries, the EPA rules are not expected to apply to many power plants because not many new ones will be built in the near future.
“There are only a small number of (coal-fired power) plants in construction,” said Dallas Burtraw, senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit natural resources policy think tank. “There is little expectation that many, if any, new plants would be built even absent the new rules. Our modeling shows that no new coal would be built for this decade even in the absence of this rule.”
Burtraw said the EPA rules governing existing plants will have the greatest impact both on emissions and the power plants that release them.
“The rules affecting existing plants will be the most important climate-related decision that any administration has had to make,” he said. “A realistic but affirmative rule for existing sources can lead to emissions reductions of several hundred tons per year.”
Days after the Capitol Hill rally, two hearings were held by House GOP critics of the EPA rules. While the first hearing contended with CCS’ feasibility, the second delved into the regulations’ supposed impact on towns dependent on coal jobs in states like Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Several communities in these areas have struggled with unemployment and economic decay — which the GOP attendees suggested resulted from efforts to cut carbon emissions.
Interestingly, the EPA’s proposed rules for new power plants have not yet taken effect, and its rules for existing power plants have not even been proposed yet. The agency also does not plan to to implement the rules immediately — it likely will allow plants several years to phase into the new emissions standards. In other words, it is impossible for the EPA rules to already have had any negative impact on employment in coal-dependent areas.
The more likely culprit for the decline in coal employment in areas such as east Kentucky is natural gas, which has enjoyed a recent boon. National employment in coal mining actually has been increasing, especially in West Virginia and western Kentucky, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a writer, thinker and strategic communicator that revels in driving the conversation at the intersection of sustainability, social entrepreneurship, tech, politics and law. He has cultivated diverse experience working for the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., helping Silicon Valley startups with strategic communications and teaching in South America. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@mikehower).