Coal Tattoo


Photo by David Grubbs/Billings Gazette, via Associated Press, of a strip mine northeast of Hardin, Montana.

As I mentioned in a story for today’s Gazette, the coal industry continues to oppose the Waxman-Markey climate change bill — this despite the long list of sweeteners added by Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher to help mining companies and coal-fired utilities remain competitive in a carbon-constrained world.

I heard that Republican Congressman Joe Barton, the ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, read most of my story into the hearing record on Thursday. Apparently, Barton thought the story made a good case for why the current legislation would kill off the coal industry.

I guess I was kind of surprised he read it that way, because I thought I did a pretty good job outlining all of the ways (including $181 billion in free greenhouse pollution permits) that the bill’s authors have tried to give coal an even chance of remaining competitive — if the industry comes up with a way to deploy carbon capture and sequestration technology on a broad scale.

Boucher himself — a major friend of coaloutlined these pro-coal amendments pretty clearly on Monday, during his opening statement on the committee markup hearings. Boucher and the United Mine Workers, though, plan to continue to try to further weaken the near-term emissions reductions requirement, from 17 percent to 14 percent (at least) between now and 2020.


But gosh, even that isn’t enough for the National Mining Association, which blasted the bill in a statement issued yesterday:

NMA opposes H.R. 2454, the ‘American Clean Energy and Security Act,’ because it does not promote economic and energy security.  While NMA recognizes changes to the original draft of the legislation are intended to reduce harmful economic consequences of the legislation, these changes are not sufficient to produce a balanced and responsible policy for addressing climate change concerns. 

To be effective, climate change policies must address global emissions and accelerate the development and commercial deployment of advanced clean coal technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).  The bill mandates sharp near-term emission reductions before this technology can be deployed.  The result will be devastating losses of high-paying mining jobs, higher energy costs for businesses and the exporting of American business and jobs to countries that do not require similar greenhouse gas emission reductions.

In addition to assuring that emission reductions are compatible with the commercial availability of the enabling technologies, an effective and balanced climate policy must include:

·         Effective cost containment measures, such as a ‘safety valve,’ to protect against spikes in energy costs that will drive business and jobs overseas;

·         Sufficient and reliable funding and incentives to accelerate the development, demonstration and broad commercial deployment of advanced coal technologies such as CCS;

·         A comprehensive legal framework governing carbon capture and storage liability in order to provide the certainty needed to attract investment;

·         Measures that maintain the global competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing and mining industries; and

·         Clear and comprehensive preemption of all federal, state and local laws addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

“America’s families, communities and businesses cannot sustain higher energy costs, additional job losses and further weakening of our economy during these difficult times.  We urge Congress to oppose H.R. 2454.”

I wrote earlier this week that this is a crossroads on climate policy, and I think that’s still true. I’m a little disappointed that my earlier post generated not a thoughtful discussion of the content of the bill, but a debate over whether we need to do anything or not — a discussion of whether human activity is really causing or contributing to global warming that’s going to be bad for our plant and our society. But we’ll keep working on that. If folks in Appalachia who are reading Coal Tattoo don’t understand the threats posed by global warming, and aren’t grounded in the real science of the issue, then it’s folks like me in the media who are to blame. Time to saddle up and write some more about that, I guess.

In the meantime, a few interesting items crossed my desktop that I wanted to pass on regarding the Waxman-Markey legislation …

First on Hill, there’s a post called, “Waxman-Markey legislation gives coal a competitive future.”  It makes some points similar to what I wrote about in my Gazette story. But it goes into much more detail, raising questions about whether folks who believe something should be done are going to think this bill is worth the trouble:

Ground zero of the contention centers around coal, an embattled industry which emerged from the negotiations with a surprisingly good deal. The bill contains performance standards for new coal plants that are weaker than those in the original Waxman-Markey discussion draft, funnels billions in funds and incentives to the development of “clean coal,” and strips EPA of authority to proceed with development of regulations for smokestack CO2 produced by the industry.

Further, although the bill imposes a gradual economy-wide emissions cap, the penalty for non-compliance or failure to achieve target reductions would amount to no more than a slap on the wrist, given the low price permits are expected to fetch on the market for some time.


The discussion draft of the Waxman-Markey bill contained performance standards for new coal plants that had some real bite. For starters, the draft stipulated that after January 1, 2015, no coal plants that emitted more than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour would be permitted for construction. That’s a natural gas standard of performance, something that no coal plant can currently do, so it looked as if after 2015, no coal plants could be built unless they could capture and store their emissions. But the current bill has relaxed the standard in both definition and start date (see page 91).

Utilities may build coal plants permitted between now and 2020, as long as by 2025, these plants “achieve an emission limit that is a 50 percent reduction in emissions of the carbon dioxide produced by the unit.” The language stipulating specific rate of emissions per megawatt-hour has been removed.


If the coal plants succeed in capturing and sequestering CO2 on the other hand, the owners stand to reap huge profits. First, the bill reserves 2% to 5% of allocations to pay for the development of CCS, which would amount to tens of billions of dollars of federal support for industry out of the gate, supplemented by an additional $1 billion annually made available through a small ratepayer levy.

The bill also provides enormous bonus allowances for the first movers of CCs technology potentially worth tens of billions of dollars. For every ton of CO2 that it sequestered, a utility would receive a bonus allowance many times more generous than the open carbon market would provide, from a minimum of $50 a ton to a maximum of $90 a ton for every ton of carbon sequestered.

In conclusion:

Climate advocates still have time to reassess where this legislation is headed. For now, official statements are supportive, though laced with carefully wrought caveats about the need for strengthening its climate protection mechanisms. The 932 pages have been publicly available for only a few days, and the first order of business is getting the bill out of committee and onto the House floor.

It remains to be seen how hard lawmakers will allow themselves to be pressed to dial back the generous cards being handed to coal-fired power generation in particular, and the massive bet they are making on a future in which greenhouse gases will kept out of the atmosphere and instead buried underground.

No one can dispute that politics has trumped science in the design of this law — at least considering the gradual pace of emissions reductions contemplated for the next decade or two. And there is great concern that this climate bill in Copenhagen will look like too little too late from an administration that has promised global leadership on climate change.

Next, on Climate Progress, Joe Romm explains some of the interesting political moves in the House committee, where Republican opponents of the bill have turned on their own — the business community — to find some ground to stand on.

And on Watthead, Energy Action Coalition founder Billy Parish explains that the legisaltion falls far short of what is needed (or what President Obama promised) in terms of efforts to encourage clean energy:

The Waxman-Markey Act recently introduced in the House could be the right start, but it currently falls far short of what we need. An analysis by the Breakthrough Institute found that of the $1 trillion in cap and trade revenue between 2012-2025, only 12% of this value, or $9 billion a year will be invested in clean technology. “This $9 billion is far less than what Obama promised ($15 billion) and far less than the $30 billion that three dozen energy scientists and experts, including several Nobel laureates, called for in a sign-on letter during the fall of 2007.” In addition, 57.3% of allowances would be freely distributed to polluting industries, which “stands in contrast to Obama’s previous calls for a 100% auction, which was included in his final budget proposal.” So while the fossil fuel industry is doing everything it can to water down legislation, what it is really doing is weakening our economic future.

As a bonus, if you missed it, here’s the video of the speed-reading clerk brought in to combat the GOP’s stall tactics on the bill … Read about it at Talking Points Memo: