By Peter Galuszka
At long last, President Barack Obama has released proposed new pollution rules that would target shutting or cleaning up coal-fired electricity plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent over the next 16 years.
The plan gives states the initial responsibility for coming up with regimes to reduce carbon through state-run carbon trading exchanges, carbon taxes, tradeoffs using renewable energy or new emissions restrictions on power plants.
While King Coal and conservative politicians, including some Democrats, strongly oppose the rules, they have been otherwise hailed as an important step in reducing greenhouse gases that are leading to climate change. “This is arguably the most important environmental rule ever written,” says Michael Livermore, a climate expert at the University of Virginia. Coal-fired plants are the country’s leading source of carbon pollution.
Coal industry and utility officials had feared Obama might come up with strict plans to immediately dun existing coal-fired plants, but the President has come up with a solution that has plenty of flexibility. In fact, one might argue it doesn’t go far enough, although environmental groups seem happy with it.
One of the reasons why the impacts on Virginia may not be that onerous is that the state’s largest utility, Richmond based Dominion, relies on coal for only 20 percent of its generation. In fact, Dominion has been planning shutdowns of its older coal plants for several years now.
Leading the list are all or parts of Chesapeake Energy Center and Yorktown that were built decades ago and are too expensive to upgrade. Indeed, according to The Washington Post, of 983 plants in the country, 63 percent are at least 40 years old. So, Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency are pretty much targeting highly-polluting, carbon-spewing plants that either are or will soon be on the shut-down list. Thus, it is ludicrous to claim that we must keep in service coal plants built when the Beatles were hot because they are needed for jobs. Why not hang on to Edsels, too?
Dominion has been busy switching plants to biomass or natural gas or building new, non-coal ones. Ohio-based American Electric Power, which operates in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields, is not so lucky since 75 percent of its generating stations use coal. Many utilities have already been achieving the carbon reduction although ones in Kentucky and West Virginia will be hardest-hit. Speaking as a former West Virginian, I must note that the economic contribution of these states to the nation overall is not that significant.
Politicians in the Mountain State predictably dumped on the rules. One who did not is outgoing U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who takes a long view.
“I understand the fears that these rules will eliminate jobs, hurt our communities, and drive up costs for working families,” Rockefeller said. “I am keenly focused on policy issues that affect West Virginians’ health and their livelihoods. However, rather than let fear alone drive our response, we should make this an opportunity to build a stronger future for ourselves. West Virginians have never walked away from a challenge, and I know together we can create a future that protects our health, creates jobs, and maintains coal as a core part of our energy supply.”
Contrast that rather statesmanlike approach with the views of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Henrico Republican, who claimed the rules were an “assault on hard working middle class families” and that it would destroy the jobs of “nearly 5,000 Virginians who work in the coal industry.”
Cantor’s musings are not quite accurate, if not downright silly. For one thing, it is doubtful that electricity rates for most Virginian – those served by Dominion – will shoot up if 80 percent of electricity generation is already non-coal.
As for the coalfields, this may come as news to a flatlander like Cantor, but employment in the Virginia coalfields has been dropping since 1991 and hasn’t been much more than 10,000 in modern times. That’s about the size of Newport News Shipbuilding or CapOne in the good years.
The true reasons why coal employment has fallen off are that coal seams have become thinner and more expensive to mine and hydraulic fracking for natural gas has made it an obvious replacement for coal. It’s not so much “Obama’s War on Coal” but “Fracking’s War on Coal.”
A few other points:
- As Virginia prepares its carbon reduction plan it is going to have to give a serious rethink to renewable portfolio standards. These are guidelines intending to reduce so much carbon by building wind, solar and other renewable energy programs to reduce dependence on fossil fuel. Unlike Maryland and North Carolina, Virginia’s standards are voluntary. This is a typical sop to business interests but the equation has just changed.
- What’s left of the Virginia and the rest of the Central Appalachian coalfields are going to stay on the decline but there are saving graces. What the Cantors of the world don’t tell you is that there is still a robust export market from those regions for both thermal and metallurgical coal. Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources has been concentrating on building up coal exports to Europe, whose energy picture has been darkened by recent Russian aggressiveness. Russia supplies Europe with about a third of its natural gas and that, in fact, can be switched in part to coal.
- What the Cantors of the world also don’t tell you is that while there will be some coal jobs lost, there will be new ones created in making wind turbines or solar panels. Doing so is expensive and progress lagged because it was cheaper for utilities to just use cheap coal and foul the air. They don’t get to do that anymore and that should clear the way for more manufacturing of renewables.
- Getting rid of some coal will improve the health of sufferers of lung disease in places such as the Ohio River Valley. Dominion out to take a harder look at its Chesterfield Power Station, its No. 1 carbon polluter, which spews out nearly 7 million tons of CO2 a year.
- Another possibility is putting together carbon exchanges or taxes in Virginia. Plenty of foreign countries have done so. In the U.S., the states leading the way are the most progressive, such as those in New England, Maryland and California. Such exchanges helped reduce ozone-harming nitrous oxides back in the 1990s using, in part, market exchanges.
Guess who led on that? A Republican named George H.W. Bush. Who knew?