In her first remarks as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Gina McCarthy pledged to use carbon standards as a “way to spark business innovation.” Her decision on carbon standards for coal-fueled power plants will test whether this is a real promise or just rhetoric.
Over the past few decades, new technologies have made the process of producing electricity from coal far cleaner and more efficient. If she proposes reasonable, achievable carbon standards, McCarthy can encourage clean-coal innovation in a way that’s good for the environment and our economy.
If you’ve flipped on a light or plugged in your cellphone today, the energy you consumed likely came from coal. Last year alone, this natural resource — one of the nation’s most abundant — was responsible for producing more electricity here in the United States than any other energy source.
Despite competition with fuels such as natural gas, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that coal will remain America’s chief source of electricity for decades to come.
The reason for coal’s popularity is simple: The energy generated from coal is exceedingly affordable, abundant and reliable. Electricity prices in states that rely on coal are more than 10 percent lower than the national average, and within our nation’s borders, we have over 250 years’ worth of coal to fuel America for generations to come.
But beyond these advantages, the coal sector’s most significant achievements have involved clean-coal technologies. To date, the industry has spent $110 billion on clean-coal innovation, and this hefty investment has paid off. Since 1970, over a dozen different technologies have enabled coal-fueled power plants to reduce the emissions rate of pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter by almost 90 percent.
In the next 15 years, the industry is likely to invest another $100 billion to build on this progress.
Coal’s future as an affordable and increasingly clean energy source will depend on the EPA. President Obama has instructed the agency to propose carbon standards for future coal-fueled power plants within a few weeks. But new regulations are always a cause for concern. A 2012 analysis found that complying with a handful of EPA regulations would cost the electric sector roughly $200 billion in compliance costs.
These rules also would eliminate nearly 550,000 jobs each year, while reducing the disposable income of the average U.S. household by as much as $500. In fact, EPA regulations have already contributed to the scheduled closure of nearly 300 coal-fueled units, and the impact on those local communities’ economies, not to mention our national economy more broadly, will be unquestionably severe.
With her forthcoming proposals, Administrator McCarthy can avoid more economic fallout, while fostering efforts to improve the environmental footprint of coal-based electricity. What’s required is a realistic set of standards for coal-fueled power plants, as well as a workable time frame for compliance.
On the other hand, if McCarthy puts forth emissions standards that even today’s most modern power plants can’t meet, it could stop the innovation that she claims to be for.
Fortunately, the new EPA administrator seems to recognize what’s at stake. This month, she sat down with Democratic leaders from coal-producing West Virginia to hear their deep concerns about overly aggressive regulations. Let’s hope McCarthy heeds these kinds of concerns. By setting achievable, not unrealistic, standards, the new EPA Administrator can lay the groundwork for a clean-energy future marked by innovation and growth.
Robert M. Duncan is CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.