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The End of Coal? New EPA Rules Will Limit GHG Emissions

After years of study, the EPA will finally release their initial greenhouse gas emissions rules for power plants, which are likely to end the construction of any coal-fired plants from this point forward.

The proposed rule — years in the making and approved by the White House after months of review — will require any new power plant to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced. The average U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 pounds of CO2 per megawatt, meets that standard; coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt.

Industry officials and environmentalists said in interviews that the rule, which comes on the heels of tough new requirements that the Obama administration imposed on mercury emissions and cross-state pollution from utilities within the past year, dooms any proposal to build a coal-fired plant that does not have costly carbon controls.

“This standard effectively bans new coal plants,” said Joseph Stanko, who heads government relations at the law firm Hunton and Williams and represents several utility companies. “So I don’t see how that is an ‘all of the above’ energy policy.”

I don’t see how coal is “cheap energy.” Pollutants from coal caused a public health crisis and hundreds of thousands if not millions of preventable illnesses and deaths. No coal executive ever paid a dime for that. If they have the technology to create “clean coal” and get under the emissions limits, they can deploy it. They might have to – gasp! – pay for their own research and development to make that happen. It would be a small price to pay in exchange for all the externality costs everyone else has picked up over the years.

But if they can’t do it, if they can’t make the technology work, new coal plants will just have to not exist. Existing coal plants and plants already in the permitting process are exempt from the rules, which means that plenty of coal will get burned in the next several years. Anyway, we’re at the end of the coal era. Natural gas has overtaken it as the cheap source of American energy. Very few new coal plants are in the works, and absent some miraculous technology you won’t see any again once the New Source Performance Standard (the name for the rule) is fully operational. That won’t happen until years into the future, as power plants have long lead times.

Dave Roberts has an important list of five things you need to know about the new rule. This is not a substitute for carbon legislation in Congress. But it does help to rid the nation of the scourge of dirty coal. Now the EPA needs to come out with their existing plant rule, which will put some real limits on carbon emissions from electricity once and for all.

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David Dayen

David Dayen