New EPA rules could force coal to change
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's coal industry is watching and waiting, worried about this week's expected release of Obama administration rules aimed at -- for the first time -- limiting greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
"It's not going to be pretty," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "I'm sure about that."
The rules, expected to be issued Friday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will cover only new coal-fired power plants. The EPA is expected to set carbon dioxide emissions limits that would basically prohibit such facilities, unless their developers include equipment to capture a significant portion of those emissions.
While industry backers complain that carbon capture and storage, or CCS, isn't far enough along to be required, other experts say part of the point of the EPA rules is to help the technology along.
"These rules will force the industry to invest in that technology and figure out how to do it," said physicist Jeremy Richardson, a West Virginia native from a mining family who is studying coal and climate change for the group Union of Concerned Scientists.
Richardson is among a growing group of scientists, activists, community organizers and business leaders pushing for West Virginia to have a more honest discussion about the coal industry's decline and the possibilities for its future and for diversifying the state economy.
While coal industry officials and their political supporters blame the industry's decline on Obama's EPA, most experts point to a much broader set of factors at play. In just the past two years, West Virginia has lost about 2,400 mining jobs, and longstanding projections estimate that Southern West Virginia production is in the midst of a steep decline that will continue for years.
Over the longer term, mechanization of underground and surface mining slashed job numbers dramatically. West Virginia coal employment peaked at more than 130,000 miners in 1940, according to the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. During the second quarter of 2013, there were about 21,400 miners working in West Virginia, according to industry data reported to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
More recently, advances in natural gas drilling techniques and lower natural gas prices have many utilities switching their fuels. In Southern West Virginia, easy-to-mine seams are playing out. Competition from Wyoming and Illinois is stiff. Aging coal-fired power plants are inefficient and can't meet modern pollution standards.
Existing coal-fired power plants "are getting crushed based on economics, irrespective of the EPA rules," said James Van Nostrand, a West Virginia University energy law professor.
"Industry and coal-fired utilities will love to blame [the] EPA for their demise," Van Nostrand said last week, "but it is really the fact that these plants are dinosaurs, very inefficient and thus expensive and dirty."
Obama's EPA is preparing to finalize the first in a pair of greenhouse gas rules for power plants just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is scheduled later this month to release its latest assessment of global warming. The new IPCC report is expected to confirm that most scientists recommend that the nation - and the world - needs to swiftly cut carbon dioxide emissions, reducing them dramatically to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
The administration has been moving toward regulating greenhouse gases under a July 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandated action if the agency's scientists concluded those emissions were endangering public health and welfare. The EPA already has missed the deadline for a legal settlement that required it to issue a final power plant emissions-reduction rule by May 2012.
Last March, the EPA proposed the emissions limits for new power plants and, three months ago, in a June speech, Obama promised that the agency would finalize that rule this month. Then, the EPA will move forward with carbon dioxide limits for existing plants, issuing a proposal by June 2014 and finalizing those limits by June 2015.
The rules will cover all electricity-generating stations, which are the source of one-third of U.S. greenhouse emissions. While the rules almost certainly would be tougher on coal plants -- because burning coal produces more carbon dioxide than burning natural gas -- it's not clear exactly what the EPA rules will say.
Some in the industry are waiting to see the fine print before jumping to harshly criticize the EPA.
"We are watching this very closely, but don't have anything else to add until we see the details," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.
In its proposed rule for new plants, the EPA said current energy economics make it very unlikely that any new coal-fired plants will be built between now and 2030, regardless of the carbon dioxide rules. However, the EPA said, developers that want to build coal plants could meet the proposed rule by deploying CCS to capture half of their CO2 emissions at start-up or through later application of more efficient carbon capture.
Four years ago, when American Electric Power launched a new CCS test project at its Mountaineer Plant in Mason County, West Virginia political leaders touted it as proof that the technology works. After being awarded $334 million in federal money to expand the CCS testing, though, AEP backed out of the project. The company cited, among other reasons, the lack of a federal regulatory requirement to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Van Nostrand said an EPA mandate would allow a utility to "make a much stronger case" to recover the costs of installing CCS, although companies still would have to show that such an investment makes sense compared to other options for providing power to their customers.
Richardson said regardless of what happens with CCS, every projection he's seen shows that Southern West Virginia coal production will continue to decline. Coal production in the state's northern counties is in better shape, he said, but action is needed to help the southern counties with the transition.
"It's really critical that we as a state imagine ourselves as more than just coal," Richardson said last week. "That doesn't denigrate our past. We have a very proud history, but we have to expand our idea of what is possible."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.