Natural gas is cheap and produces fewer emissions, so coal would become a less desirable energy source. The Peabody Coal Company in Northeastern Arizona. (Photo: Lyntha Scott Eiler, DOCUMERICA)
The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first national standards to limit CO2 emissions from new power plants. Eric Schaeffer heads the watchdog group, the Environmental Integrity Project. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that the EPA’s rules have some loopholes but could be a big tool in fighting climate change.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. All futures are uncertain, but now, with the EPA proposing new emission standards for power plants, the future of coal is especially uncertain. Coal is the number one source of our nation’s electricity, but boy, does burning it pollute! It is, by far, the number one source of our climate changing CO2 emissions.
Five years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA could regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and this past week, that’s just what the agency did. To the disappointment of many, the EPA’s proposed regulations would only affect new coal power-plants, not the 600 currently in use. Still, the new standards would be among the biggest changes in U.S. environmental law ever. During the George W. Bush Administration, Eric Schaeffer was in charge of enforcing the Clean Air act; now he heads the EPA watchdog group, the Environmental Integrity Project.
SCHAEFFER: It's a serious standard. It means that you can’t build a new coal plant in the U.S. unless you remove a significant amount of the carbon, it’s a big deal.
GELLERMAN: Well, the operative word there is “new” coal plants.
GELLERMAN: So, this only affects those that are going to be built, although there is this kind of year wiggle room.
SCHAEFFER: Yes, there are a number of exemptions in the rule in an effort to soften the impact and one of those is if you’re already holding a permit to build a new plant, you’ve got a year to get started, and there are about 15 plants in that category. Another exemption, really, is if you’ve got an existing coal plant and you reconstruct or modify that plant to beef up its capacity, make it bigger basically, then you’re not subject to the new standard. And a lot of coal companies do that, a lot of utilities do that, they’ll take an old unit and they’ll refurbish it and boost the capacity so that it comes back to life bigger and stronger than it was. And that kind of remodeling of a plant is exempt.
GELLERMAN: So is there going to be a mad scramble to slide new plants under this new rule?
SCHAEFFER: If you don't already have a permit, it’s too late. So it’s not as though you could read this announcement today and say 'oh, I better run out and get my application in to build a new coal plant.' It takes several years to get a permit. There are about 15 coal plants today that are holding permits, where ground hasn’t broken yet.
GELLERMAN: I was looking at the EPA fact sheet and it says this: Even if there were no standards, no new regulation by the EPA, people still wouldn’t be building coal plants.
SCHAEFFER: I think that’s true, that’s what the economic analysis shows. About three years ago, we were looking at a wave of applications to build coal plants, there were applications going in all across the United State to build very big coal plants. Most of those have fallen by the wayside. Some of them were defeated in permit battles, but most of the collapse in that market for new coal plants came about because gas got cheaper and cheaper, it no longer made sense to build a big coal plant with gas prices so low and renewables are more and more competitive. So, I think the EPA is exactly right that the market for new coal plants is tiny if it exists at all for the next couple of decades.
GELLERMAN: Now, the way this regulation is structured, coal plants can store their emissions underground, carbon capture and storage, and therefore meet the new standard. But my understanding is that there is no commercial carbon capture and storage, and nobody really thinks it’s really going to happen in the next decade or more.
SCHAEFFER: I think that’s right. Companies are just not going to invest a lot of money to bury carbon dioxide from a big coal plant when they can build a gas plant for less money when you get to the full operating costs. I think EPA proposal recognizes that, EPA suggests that carbon capture might be economical if the cost of that technology comes down in about ten years. And they provide a pathway in the bill that lets you take your carbon emissions and average them over 30 years. So you can effectively meet the standard by building a plant that is a little above the standard today, if you agree to install carbon capture within ten years and bring the carbon dioxide emissions down far enough that over the 30-year lifetime of the standard, you’ll hit the number that the EPA wants you to hit.
GELLERMAN: But isn’t that pie-in-the-sky, in other words, who would invest in a coal plant and hope that the technology would be there so that they average out over 30 years to meet the standard?
SCHAEFFER: Beats me. The economics aren’t there and the prospect of trying to site a large carbon sequestration plant near everybody’s groundwater where people are going to have questions where the carbon is going and how long it can be safely stored and, you know, what’s it going to do to the water supply. You could imagine what those fights would be like. And again, with gas almost being given away right now, I just don’t see a market for carbon sequestration and I don’t think that’s a very radical view.
GELLERMAN: So, given the economics, given the new standard, is coal as an energy source now DOA? Are we hearing the death knell of coal?
SCHAEFFER: You know, I think that would be melodramatic. Something to remember is that we still have a lot of existing coal plants. As you pointed out, this rule does not apply to existing coal plants, even if those plants are remodeled, reconstructed in a way that makes their emissions greater. And I would expect to see that happen, to continue to happen, at a number of large coal plants. We won’t see new ones, but we’ll see existing plants, the ones that survive, generating more than they do today.
GELLERMAN: Is this standard that the EPA has announced, is this what you were hoping for?
SCHAEFFER: I have seen the Administration and EPA backpedal on some major rules under political pressure and I would not have been surprised to see a weaker standard - not so much because that’s what EPA wanted, but because of internal pressure and the pressure of the election. The fact that they have drawn a line with this proposal, I think that’s a significant step. I’m actually pleasantly surprised that they set a standard for new coal plants - with all its warts and exemptions - that is the kind of standard that you’d want to see if you want to do anything about global warming and get these emissions under a standard.
GELLERMAN: Well, Eric Schaeffer, thanks so much.
SCHAEFFER: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure being with you.
GELERMAN: Eric Schaeffer heads the EPA watchdog group, the Environmental Integrity Project.
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