A vendetta against coal

Obama’s CO2 rules offer minimal benefits — but big problems for miners

Miner Allen Turner sits on his porch with his four children in Cawood, Ky.
Miner Allen Turner sits on his porch with his four children in Cawood, Ky.(ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2006)

WHO SAYS President Obama doesn't have an energy policy? Last month it was boldly on display as the Environmental Protection Agency published rules restricting CO2 emissions for power plants. Coupled with dramatic limits on mercury emissions issued in December, the new rules will fundamentally reshape power generation in America. Aside from the 15 plants already under construction, there will probably never be another coal-fired electric plant built in the United States.

That's bad news for nearly 200,000 workers who depend directly on the coal industry for their jobs. It may be bad news for consumers as well, but only time will tell. There's lots of cheap natural gas around today that could fill the gap. But with coal currently meeting 45 percent of the country's electricity demand, this represents a wholesale reordering of America's power industry. It's a policy all right, but one where no one really knows the long-term consequences.


The basis for the new rules is simple, albeit controversial. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA could regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act, if the agency met all thresholds for justifying new regulations. In 2009, the EPA declared that CO2 "endangered human health'' using assumptions about both future global temperatures and their related health effects. The new rules have been two years in the making; never mind that both US CO2 emissions and global temperatures have been flat since 1998.

To no one's surprise, miners, farmers, and others sued to overturn the rules by questioning the validity of the "endangerment'' finding. Adding insult to injury, the EPA admits that the rule "is not likely to produce changes in emissions of greenhouse gases.'' Indeed, the agency argues that, even without the rule, power companies would build new plants, presumably using fuels other than coal, that comply with the CO2 limits. In other words, they admit the rule has no benefits. So why write it at all?


America is the Saudi Arabia of coal, with reserves that could cover our electricity demands for hundreds of years. The president insists that we find another way to get that done: wind, solar, algae - even natural gas or nuclear in the near term. Just no coal, thank you.

Plenty of lip service has been paid to "clean coal,'' but by all measures it's still as far off as hydrogen cars and perpetual motion machines. The Department of Energy has promoted technology for removing CO2 and injecting it under high pressure underground. (Ironically, the same environmentalists who howl about fracturing gas formations thousands of feet underground have no problem injecting a billion tons of CO2 into the earth under high pressure.) Unfortunately, carbon capture is prohibitively expensive; at a current cost of up to $100 per ton, it can nearly double the cost of generation.

While the CO2 limits create a de facto ban on new coal plants, the mercury rule forces existing plants to start shutting down. An AP survey counted at least 68 plants targeted for closure, while EPA itself estimates that 15,000 megawatts will go off line by 2015. That's enough to power 10 million homes. Industry estimates are even higher.

This is not to say that there shouldn't be limits on mercury emissions. But standards that force such significant plant closures are suspect, since atmospheric concentration levels are highest not near power plants but in the arid high plains of New Mexico, Kansas, and Nebraska. Meanwhile, levels of mercury deposited on the ground from the atmosphere are highest where it rains and snows - places like the Gulf Coast, Florida, and the Sierras. That's because the vast majority of atmospheric mercury is natural, emitted by oceans, deserts, and forest fires.


The EPA says the new regulations, which reduce global mercury emissions by less than 0.4 percent, will save 11,000 lives. By that math, zeroing out all mercury emissions would save over 3 million lives. Yet the idea that so many Americans are dying prematurely from mercury poisoning is preposterous.

Terminating an industry that provides nearly half the country's electricity seems like a big deal, but the economists at the EPA say not to worry. They project "no discernible additional impact on the US economy, employment, electricity prices, or electricity availability.'' This is a bureaucratic fantasy, designed to paper over the fact that they can find no benefit to the carbon rule in the first place.

Nothing is free. So who pays? Not "Big Coal,'' the target of this regulatory vendetta. Coal companies' profits - and shareholder returns - will continue to be driven by productivity improvements even as jobs disappear. The real costs are borne by the unemployed miners, truckers, and technicians, who have paid millions in taxes to subsidize the Solyndras of the world. Industrial policy on this scale isn't just inefficient. It's immoral.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.