A realistic EPA plan to wean America from coal

The News TribuneJune 24, 2014 

The Colstrip Steam Electric Station – a coal-burning power plant in in Colstrip, Montana – provides power to some utilities in Washington state, including Puget Sound Energy.


It’s a shame that coal is a partisan wedge issue in this country. Americans ought to be collaborating on ways to phase out coal power as painlessly as possible, not exploiting the problem for political ammunition.

In many countries – particularly Western Europe – the Obama administration’s recent move to curtail carbon emissions from power plants would be uncontroversial.

Climate change isn’t just a campaign talking point; it’s a reality. So is the greenhouse effect. Human industry may not be responsible for all of it, but coal-fired plants are inarguably dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. There’s no way that can be working in our favor.

The new energy regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency would require states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent by 2030.

It’s a reasonable goal. The baseline is 2005, before the Great Recession. Energy has gotten cleaner since then. Coal – the dirtiest energy on the planet – has been undercut by dramatic drops in the price of natural gas, which emits half the carbon when burned. In the United States, at least, coal is already on the way out.

Washington is a good example. Our state has a single coal-fired plant, run by TransAlta outside Centralia. Responding to political, regulatory and economic pressure, TransAlta has been replacing its coal boilers with gas-fired units, and it has agreed to stop burning coal entirely by 2025.

Because the EPA would give states credit for what they’ve already done, Washington – which has done a lot – would fare well under the new rules.

Other states are more coal-dependent. The EPA wouldn’t dictate how they met their targets, as long as they met them.

Many of the country’s coal plants are already antiques and headed for closure. But shutting down power plants isn’t the only option. Old plants could be upgraded to burn more efficiently. States could enter into regional “cap-and-trade” agreements that would allow companies to buy and sell carbon-emission rights inside an overall limit.

What can’t be an option is doing nothing.

The EPA plan would inevitably cost jobs and profits in some states. But the status quo carries costs for everyone, even if climate change isn’t factored in. Aside from carbon dioxide, coal fire emits sooty particulates, mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants.

Without a cap-and-trade system or something like it, coal companies don’t pay a dime for the damage they do to the atmosphere and to public health; the public does.

The industry can’t be phased out overnight, or even in the next couple decades. The solution ultimately requires that China and other heavy coal consumers do their part. But we’ve got to start somewhere. The Obama administration is making an important step in the right direction.

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