White House war on coal

posted at 4:40 pm on June 3, 2011 by Jazz Shaw

While much of our attention on matters of domestic energy production has been focused on questions regarding oil and natural gas, (and to a lesser extent, nuclear) which, as Ed pointed out earlier, might be more plentiful than we currently imagine, the EPA has certainly been a bunch of busy beavers on other fronts as well. Even though cap and trade went down in flames through legal routes, as The American Legislative Exchange reports, the commission has been using extra-legislative procedures, cloaked under the guise of the Clean Air Act, to to effectively declare war on the American coal industry.

While pending regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act (despite Congressional rejection of cap-and-trade) has received the lion’s share of the attention, the Environmental Protection Agency has also begun developing and finalizing a slew of overreaching and inefficient air and water rules over the next several years that will dramatically increase energy costs, cause enormous negative impacts to jobs and the economy, irreparably damage the competitiveness of American business, and trample on state sovereignty in the process.

EPA’s Regulatory Train Wreck: Strategies for State Legislators outlines the costs of these major EPA rules, tells the true story of America’s modern clean air and water successes, and outlines best practices for state legislators (including following the many states that are considering resolutions in 2011 to call for Congress to slow and stop this regulatory onslaught).

The report also explores more than 15 pieces of ALEC model legislation related to regulatory review and state environmental sovereignty, contains a glossary of Clean Air Act terminology, and includes responses from state environmental officials to the heavy-handed approach of EPA.

In the past I’ve made no secret of the fact that coal is my least favorite of all fossil fuel based domestic energy resources. There are undeniable disadvantages to this fuel in the modern era, not the least of which is that coal is by far the most dangerous to workers in terms of loss of life and serious injuries during extraction. (That’s not to say that oil and natural gas rig workers don’t also face challenges. These people all brave incredibly challenging jobs to get the energy we need, but coal mines are particularly risky environments.)

Also, even leaving aside any politically toxic debates over carbon emissions, etc. it remains true that coal is the most expensive to keep suitably clean (just in terms of raw soot and other byproducts which nobody wants dumping into the air) when compared to other plentiful American supplies such as oil and natural gas. But with that said, I’m also enough of a realist to understand that we are still nowhere close to the point where it can be reasonably replaced in the near future.

That’s why it is dangerous in the extreme for the government to try to rush off the cliff of cutting off coal production by regulatory fiat with no plan to replace the lost energy delivery capacity. Plans currently under consideration include the Utility Maximum Achievable Control Technology (or MACT) rules.

As the report indicates, many areas such as Ohio will be particularly hard hit if these MACT rules are put in place. Coal plant operators will be put into a position of having to buy emissions control equipment which is either prohibitively expensive under current technology or, in some cases, not even available. The possible result?

  • The potential loss of 30-70 gigawatts of electricity generated nationwide
  • Potential elimination of 2.5 million jobs
  • Energy investment losses of up to $300B
  • Reduction of GDP by up to $500B

There are issues with coal production and use without a doubt. But for the past generation the industry has been working hand in hand with the government to confront those challenges, reduce workplace hazards and minimize environmental impact while the technology catches up to our needs. Hasty mandates from the EPA, absent legislative oversight, seeking to curtail production will open up an entirely new can of worms which the Obama administration seems to have not thought through.

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