The coal industry could take a significant hit, but would continue to fuel 30 percent of the nation’s electricity generation by 2030 under an Obama administration plan to curb emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projections made public Monday.
The EPA touted its new “Clean Power Plan” proposal as one that “preserves fuel diversity,” with both coal and natural gas each expected to continue to provide nearly a third of the nation’s electricity, even as greenhouse emissions from power plants are cut by 30 percent over 2005 figures.
“We know that coal and natural gas play a significant role in a diverse national energy mix,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a speech announcing the agency’s proposal.
“This plan does not change that — it recognizes the opportunity to modernize aging plants, increase efficiency and lower pollution,” McCarthy said. “That’s part of an all-of-the-above strategy that paves a more certain path for conventional fuels in a carbon-constrained world.”
McCarthy spoke in an appearance at EPA headquarters in Washington just after the agency released its 645-page proposal, which is a key part of President Obama’s plan for the United States to emerge as a global leader in the movement to curb emissions and avoid the most drastic impacts of climate change. She emphasized the public health benefits of the rule, saying that the effects of heat-trapping gases are already occurring, giving the nation and the world no time to waste in acting.
“This is not just about disappearing polar bears and melting ice caps,” McCarthy said. “It is about protecting our health and protecting our homes.”
McCarthy added, “The science is clear. The risks are clear. We have a moral obligation to act.”
The proposal allows states to make decisions about how to reduce their emissions, and says that EPA “anticipates — and supports — states’ commitments to a wide range of policy preferences that could encompass those of states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Wyoming, seeking to continue to feature significant reliance on coal-based generation.”
For many years, coal provided half or more of the nation’s electricity. But that share has been declining in recent years in the face of fierce competition from cheap natural gas. Last year, coal provided 39 percent of the nation’s power generation, and — without the EPA carbon rule — it’s projected to drop to 32 percent by 2040, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration.
EPA projected that coal use by the power sector would decline by 30 to 32 percent by 2030. In Southern West Virginia, coal production has been dropping, and the DOE projects Central Appalachian output to decline by nearly 40 percent between 2013 and 2040.
Coalfield political leaders and the industry were already out in force Monday to harshly criticize the EPA proposal.
At the Capitol in Charleston, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin brought together industry officials, United Mine Workers representatives, and several members of the state’s congressional delegation for a news conference at which they vowed to fight the proposed rule.
“This rule is bad,” said West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney. “It’s bad for West Virginia. It’s bad for our coal miners, and it’s bad for our coal industry.”
Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, said, the proposal “is simply a recipe for disaster in America’s coalfields.”
Across the country and in West Virginia, environmental advocacy groups generally offered praise for the EPA announcement.
“These life-saving protections could not come at a more critical time,” said Jim Kotcon, a spokesman for the West Virginia Sierra Club. “Climate disruption and extreme weather are worsening life-threatening air pollution in West Virginia and worsening extreme weather events that lead to gas and food shortages, agricultural damage, flooding and droughts.”
Some environmental groups also promised to push during a 120-day public comment period for steeper emissions cuts.
“While a step forward, this rule simply doesn’t go far enough to put us on the right path,” said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica. The group promised to “push back against President Obama’s misguided ‘all of the above’ energy policy’ and advocate “an immediate transition to clean renewable energy” and “keeping as many fossil fuels in the ground as possible.”
The EPA proposed a variety of options for states to meet emissions targets, including making plants more efficient, reducing how often coal-fired plants supply power to the grid, investing in low-carbon sources energy such as renewables, and stepping up efforts aimed at reducing electricity demand by making buildings more energy-efficient.
Unlike its pending proposal to limit greenhouse emissions limits at new power plants, the EPA did not include carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a “best system of emission reduction” in its proposal for existing power plants. In its proposal, EPA blamed the costs of “integrating a retrofit” CCS system into an existing facility and said that some existing power plants have a limited footprint and may not have the land available” to add such a system.
While industry officials grumbled about the EPA proposal, the agency took at least one major step that utilities had hoped for: The agency set 2005 as the baseline year for emissions reductions, a move that could let power companies count toward the rule reductions they’ve already made as they’ve switched to cheap natural gas and phased out aging generation stations that don’t meet modern requirements for other air pollutants.
In West Virginia, for example, annual carbon dioxide emissions from power plants dropped by more than 15 percent between 2005 and 2011, according to Energy Department data. Generally, the state would need to reduce emission rates from power plants by about 13 percent below 2012 rates by 2020 and just less than 20 percent below 2012 rates by 2030, according to figures buried in the hundreds of pages of technical documents the EPA published Monday.
“Given that power plant emissions are already down about 15 percent since 2005 due to fuel switching to natural gas and are expected to drop another 6 to 7 percent by 2020, the reduction required by the rule is not as draconian as it sounds,” said James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law.
Still, Van Nostrand said, the EPA proposal, if finalized, would “present a major challenge for coal-dependent regions of the country.”
The road for West Virginia could be particularly difficult, Van Nostrand said, because the state’s “alternative energy portfolio standard” can be met with 100 percent coal generation and the state “has no formalized policies to encourage utilities to offer energy-efficiency programs.” Also, the recent transfer of ownership of the coal-fired Harrison Power Station by FirstEnergy to its West Virginia subsidiaries made the state’s fleet more dependent than ever on coal, Van Nostrand said.
“West Virginia is currently positioned very poorly to comply with the EPA rules,” Van Nostrand said. “Based on existing policies, it will be very expensive for West Virginia to achieve compliance with the EPA rules. We have a lot of catching up to do as compared with surrounding states that have adopted energy policies largely anticipating these actions by EPA.”
Michael Oppenheimer, a geosciences professor at Princeton University, said that the EPA proposal is “quite significant” and is likely enough to change the international dynamics around global initiatives to address climate change. And, Oppenheimer said, the proposal provides lots of flexibility for states, even coal-dependent ones like West Virginia.
“The flexible elements of the program should reduce the harm to the West Virginia economy over the long term, [but] this initiative provides one more among many reasons for West Virginia to plan for a future which is far less dependent on coal and coal-based electricity,” Oppenheimer said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.