President Obama was applauded in his June climate change speech at Georgetown University when he said he was ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to develop power-plant carbon pollution rules to end the “limitless dumping” of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Last month, new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy delivered convincingly on the first level of that process, proposing standards for new fossil-fuel power plants. Coal-fired plants and large natural gas plants would be limited to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. That would be a cut of more than 40 percent from today’s most advanced coal-fired plants.

The announcement was hailed by environmentalists as a breakthrough, but condemned by the coal industry for a simple reason: It will be expensive for builders of new plants to develop sufficient carbon-capture and sequestration technology to meet the new guidelines. McCarthy, in a telephone interview, said it is not the EPA’s intention to wage “war on coal,” as is being asserted by coal-state senators such as Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a Senate Democrat. She said the EPA’s role is to come up with rules under the Clean Air Act that hopefully will spur investment in cleaner-coal technologies in a nation that also takes seriously dangers to climate change and public health. It sounds like a thin reed of hope, but it’s the best answer, and it’s not likely to be as far-fetched a goal as the industry proclaims. Throughout the history of the Clean Air Act, such targets have been declared impossible, only to have technology enable such reductions and more.


Besides, even without the EPA’s action, the future of coal is in jeopardy. In just the last six years, the natural gas boom has shrunk coal’s percentage of US electricity production from half to about a third. New natural gas-fired plants are already well under the EPA’s proposed limits, producing between 800 and 850 pounds of CO2 per kilowatt hour, less than half of the average modern coal plant.

The relative efficiency of natural gas is a reason why carbon emissions have dropped dramatically in New England, so much so that utilities have avoided retrofitting the coal-fired facilities in their portfolios. To maintain the pressure for retrofitting, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which McCarthy helped to conceive when she was a top environmental official in Massachusetts and Connecticut, lowered emissions caps even further this year. But other parts of the nation remain far more reliant on coal.


What that industry fears is not so much the rules for new plants, since none are on the horizon, but upcoming EPA guidelines for existing plants, which are due by next spring. Any significant cuts in emissions would have to be achieved through retrofitting, which might render some plants obsolete. That, in turn, could jeopardize the livelihoods of miners in Appalachia and the Midwest.

McCarthy said the EPA will attempt to devise a complex, flexible set of rules that account for state and regional energy differences. But she also likened the debate to the years when the American auto industry resisted fuel efficiency standards, insisting they were too expensive to implement, but ultimately found new technologies to run cleaner engines and sell more cars in the process. The coal industry and power companies should remember the plight of Chrysler and General Motors and take seriously the potential to capture carbon emissions before they enter the atmosphere. The future of the planet may well depend on it. The future of the coal industry certainly does.