Skip to content

COUNTERPOINT: PRESIDENT’S CLIMATE CHANGE PROPOSAL & COAL Using the EPA to write carbon constraints because Congress wouldn’t is wrong

   On June 25, President Obama announced his comprehensive plan to address climate change. The announcement was hardly a surprise to the coal industry, as Mr. Obama promised during the 2008 presidential campaign that he would bankrupt the coal industry.
Phil-Gonet   However, for the past five years we have held out hope, albeit faint, that the president would recognize the importance of coal to the economic well-being of the nation. After all, Mr. Obama is from Illinois, home of one of the most abundant bituminous coal deposits in the world, estimated by the Illinois State Geological Survey at 200 billion tons (that’s right, billion). Moreover, he acknowledged the significant economic impact of coal to the state and pledged his support for the industry during his campaign for U.S. Senate in downstate Illinois in 2004.
   This hope for fair treatment of coal continued after some of  his first actions as president. The stimulus package appeared to support clean coal technology with restoration of funding for the FutureGen project in Mattoon, and new funding for four new coal gasification plants. However, I am not aware of any progress on new gasification plants, and FutureGen has been downsized to the 2.0 version which will retrofit a 40-year-old power plant along the Illinois River in Meredosia with a carbon capture and storage technology. So this hope for fair treatment for coal from this president was already fading by his announcement on June 25.
   It seems that the concept of a carbon tax began in the Congress elected in 2006.  Since then, the position of the coal industry has been clear and consistent: Do not impose carbon constraints without proven technology to meet the reduced emission standards.  
   This is why FutureGen was such an important project. Announced by President Bush in 2003,with leadership from  the Department of Energy, this public/private partnership would build and operate a near-zero emissions coal power plant. The first plant in Mattoon would be the template for the construction of new power plants in the country. Unfortunately, 10 years later we have made very little progress in developing clean coal technologies, and the support from the federal government has been underwhelming.
   In announcing his plan in June, the President commented that the rules to reduce carbon will not kill jobs. He noted that the same complaint was heard in 1990 when the Acid Rain cap and trade program was enacted.  This is an interesting – and inaccurate – comment for several reasons. The Acid Rain program nearly killed the Illinois coal industry, as power plants in Illinois and other states switched to lower-sulfur coal from Wyoming. From 1990 to 2003, Illinois coal production fell by 50 percent and over 6,500 jobs were lost, about two-thirds of the workforce.     Those are direct job losses, Mr. President, from your home state that left several downstate communities devastated.  Some have never recovered.
   But the President is correct. The Acid Rain program worked. But it was because there were alternative ways to comply with the law other than shutting down the power plant. There was a proven technology to meet the lower emission standards in 1990 for sulfur dioxide (scrubbers). In addition, utilities could also switch to lower-sulfur coal. But tell one of the thousands of Illinois miners who lost their job when their coal mine closed that the program didn’t kill jobs. They won’t agree.
   So how do we view the President’s proposal? Many have called the climate change plan a war on coal, and we tend to agree. But the devil is in the details.  The president has directed the Environmental Protection Agency to establish carbon pollution standards by certain deadlines. However, given the past anti-coal proposals from the Obama EPA, will coal be able to get a fair shake? We think not.
   In fact, this last point is another major problem we have with the president’s plan.  We contend that these policies are to be developed by the Congress, and Congress has spoken. There is no majority support in Congress for carbon constraints. What the president is doing is implementing an unpopular program administratively that he couldn’t get the Congress to approve. This is wrong.
   So where does the coal industry stand? We know that coal-based electricity generates and sustains more jobs than any other energy source. So it stands to reason that policies that turn off this job engine will stall and damage our economy.  And they will raise costs to the consumer.
   We believe that for new power plants, a separate technology standard for coal is essential. Incredibly, EPA previously proposed a CO2 standard for new power plants that could NOT be met by coal. The standard should be set where advanced coal technologies can provide lower emissions of CO2 and virtually eliminate regulated pollutants at the same time. This will allow the U.S. to still use its world-leading coal supply more responsibly – and to allow households and businesses to continue to take advantage of coal’s abundance, its reliability and affordability.
   Eliminating coal’s greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. will not significantly alter concentrations of GHG worldwide because of the scale of those emissions coming from China and India now and in the future. The only result would be to significantly burden U.S. industries with additional costs that our foreign competitors will not have, making us less competitive – with insignificant environmental gains.
   We should also acknowledge that coal is the fastest-growing fuel in the world for a reason: It is our best chance to rid poverty among the 1.3 billion people in the developing world today who lack access to any electricity, and the additional 1.7 billion who still have only limited access to it. Without coal, they won’t.
    Phil Gonet is president of the Illinois Coal Association.

Leave a Comment