Obama declares war on coal

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Those that fail to comply will have to be shut down. The Republicans are up in arms.


President Barack Obama announced last week limits on carbon emissions from new power plants in the United States. In the works for at least a year, the move is the first time the federal government has imposed such emissions. They are sure to kick off a battle royal with the powerful gas and coal industry at a time when Obama is grappling with the industry’s Republican defenders in Congress over the nation’s budget and debt.

Republicans call it a war on jobs

Republicans have long been attacking the president for considering the new rules when the U.S. economic recovery was still weak.

“The president is leading a war on coal,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who leads his caucus in the upper chamber, in a statement. “What that really means for Kentucky families is a war on jobs. The announcement by the EPA is another back door attempt by President Obama to fulfil his long-term commitment to shut down our nation’s coal mines.”

Because he couldn’t overcome Republican resistance to the limits in Congress, Obama is instituting the limits unilaterally in a move he believes conforms to pre-existing law. “New power plants, both natural gas and coal-fired, can minimize their carbon emissions by taking advantage of modern technologies,” according to a transcript of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s speech that was leaked to the press.

New technologies needed

The new rules would bar gas-fired power plants from emitting more than 454 kilograms of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. New coal plants could only emit as much as 500 kilograms of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. The rules would take effect over the next few years. Current coal-fired power plants emit around 816 kilograms of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.

The rules would basically require new power plants to capture excess carbon and store it underground before releasing it into the atmosphere in a process called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). No power plant owner in the US has implemented a CCS system, citing high costs. A few plants are being constructed with the technology, but they are considered pilot projects that have received significant government subsidies.

‘‘EPA has set a dangerous and far-reaching precedent for the broader economy by failing to base environmental standards on reliable technology,’’ said National Mining Association President Hall Quinn.

Environmentalists approve

A former EPA official who served under the coal-friendly administration of ex-President George W. Bush said he doubted whether the government had the authority force an industry to adopt an untested technology or else prohibit new plants from going online. “I’m quite confident there will be a legal challenge,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, now an attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington, DC. “There’s a good chance it will be overturned in court, but that’s a few years away.”

But advocates for the new rules said the technology worked. ‘‘For power producers and coal mining companies that reject these standards, they have no reason to complain and every excuse to innovate,’’ said Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Power plants produced around 40 per cent of carbon emissions from energy production last year, most from coal-fired facilities, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. So any limits on these emissions are a step in the right direction for environmentalists.

“We are thrilled that the EPA is taking this major step forward in implementing President Obama’s climate action plan,” said League of Conservation Voters Vice President Tiernan Sittenfeld. “It’s a great day for public health and a clean energy future.”

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