Coal Tattoo

So how did that mercury get into the fish?


There’s important news out today from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. Marla Cone of Environmental Health News reports:

Federal officials on Tuesday announced major changes in advice to pregnant and breastfeeding women by recommending consumption of at least 8 ounces of low-mercury fish per week.

“Eating fish with lower levels of mercury provides numerous health and dietary benefits,” Nancy Stoner, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s acting assistant administrator for the Office of Water said in a statement. “This updated advice will help pregnant women and mothers make informed decisions about the right amount and right kinds of fish to eat during important times in their lives and their children’s lives.”

Under the long-awaited, proposed new guidelines, pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to eat a minimum of 8 ounces and no more than 12 ounces of fish with low levels of mercury, including shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod.

It is the first time that the EPA and Food and Drug Administration have issued advice on the minimum amount of fish that pregnant women should eat. The previous advice, issued in 2004, included only maximum amounts to protect their fetuses from the harmful effects of mercury.

As in the old recommendations, pregnant and nursing women are told to avoid high mercury fish: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark; swordfish and king mackerel.

The agencies also reiterated their specific recommendations for limits on albacore (or white) tuna: no more than 6 ounces a week. Advice about consumption of tuna has been highly controversial, with the fishing industry criticizing any recommended limits and health advocacy groups pushing for the FDA and EPA to add it to the list of fish to avoid.

You can read more about the fish-consumption advisories here, but it’s worth remembering — especially as coalfield political leaders continue their campaign of misinformation about EPA efforts to better control power plant pollution — that the burning of coal and other fossil fuels is a major source of mercury contamination of our waterways (see also here, here and here).

EPA wins another key court battle


There’s a big U.S. Supreme Court ruling out today that is a big win for the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. Here’s the short of it from The New York Times:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate coal-plant pollution that wafts across state lines from 27 Midwestern and Appalachian states to eastern states.

The 6-to-2 ruling is a major environmental victory for the Obama administration, which has instituted several new E.P.A. regulations under the Clean Air Act in an effort to crack down on coal pollution. Republicans and the coal industry have criticized the effort as a “war on coal.”

The regulations covering cross-state air pollution, also known as “good neighbor” rules, have pitted Rust Belt and Appalachian states like Ohio and Kentucky, which produce heavy pollution, against East Coast states including New York and Connecticut.

The Times’ Coral Davenport notes:

Legal experts say the Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, may signal that the Obama administration’s other efforts to use the Clean Air Act to push through major environmental curbs on coal pollution will prove successful.

In June, the E.P.A. is expected to unveil a sweeping new climate change proposal, using the authority of the Clean Air Act to rein in carbon pollution from coal plants.

You can read the full ruling yourself here. And let’s not forget that West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey was among those who filed an amicus brief against EPA’s rule — and even bragged that this was this was “the first time in at least two decades that a Mountain State attorney general has led the writing of a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court involving the EPA.”

New study details strip-mining air pollution


There’s a new paper just out that provides some helpful new information about the potential public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. Here’s the abstract:

People who live in Appalachian areas where coal mining is prominent have increased health problems compared with people in non-mining areas of Appalachia. Coal mines and related mining activities result in the production of atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that is associated with human health effects. There is a gap in research regarding particle size concentration and distribution to determine respiratory dose around coal mining and non-mining areas. Mass- and number-based size distributions were determined with an Aerodynamic Particle Size and Scanning Mobility Particle Sizer to calculate lung deposition around mining and non-mining areas of West Virginia. Particle number concentrations and deposited lung dose were significantly greater around mining areas compared with non-mining areas, demonstrating elevated risks to humans. The greater dose was correlated with elevated disease rates in the West Virginia mining areas. Number concentrations in the mining areas were comparable to a previously documented urban area where number concentration was associated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

The paper, Atmospheric particulate matter size distribution and concentration in West Virginia coal mining and non-mining areas, was published online yesterday by the peer-reviewed Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, and is available to subscribers here.

FirstEnergy to close 2 more coal plants

The Hatfield’s Ferry plant in Masontown, Pa. Photo via FirstEnergy

Here’s today’s news from FirstEnergy:

FirstEnergy Corp. (NYSE: FE) announced today that it expects to deactivate two coal-fired power plants located in Pennsylvania by October 9, 2013. The decision is based on the cost of compliance with current and future environmental regulations in conjunction with the continued low market price for electricity.

The plants scheduled to be deactivated are Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station in Masontown, Pa., and Mitchell Power Station in Courtney, Pa.

FirstEnergy noted in its announcement:

The total capacity of these plants is 2,080 megawatts, representing approximately 10 percent of the company’s total generating capacity, but about 30 percent of the estimated $925 million cost to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS).

It’s worth noting that Hatfield’s Ferry had not so long ago been retrofitted with sulfur dioxide “scrubbers”, and had more recently been under consideration for a fuel switch to natural gas. FirstEnergy had previously announced closures of six plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and three plants in West Virginia.

And while Hatfield’s Ferry had new scrubbers, the toxic stuff generated by burning coal has to go somewhere, and environmental groups were concerned about the water pollution from the scrubber waste at the facility.


We’ve written before on this blog about West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley. He’s not a big fan of environmental regulations, especially those that might improve the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash, and definitely doesn’t like federal regulators.

During a House committee hearing on Friday, there was a fascinating exchange when Rep. McKinley got his chance to question Dr. William N. Rom, who had testified that air pollution protections are important, and told committee members:

The adverse health effects of air pollution are well known and fully documented in the scientific literature. Equally well established are the health and economic benefits associated with reductions in air pollution. For these reasons, the American Thoracic Society strongly urges Congress to reject any legislation that limits, weakens or delays the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to implement the science based standards of the Clean Air Act.

At issue in the hearing was discussion draft legislation from Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., that is billed as “requiring increased transparency regarding the economic impacts of EPA regulations.” Whitefield explains his bill this way:

… The “Energy Consumers Relief Act” would require that, prior to finalizing a rule estimated to cost at least a billion dollars; EPA must first submit a concise cost analysis to Congress. This analysis will provide the public with greater transparency by requiring the inclusion of such things as the impact of the rule on gasoline or electricity prices, as well as any potential job losses.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor, said that the bill:

… Would only reinforce and amplify the problem of under-regulation at the EPA, preventing the agency from addressing many of the environmental and public health risks noted above. This result would no doubt elate corporate interests by helping them protect their already healthy bottom lines. But, the toll it would take on the general public would be unconscionable.

But here’s the part I wanted to get to … Dr. Rom testified about a patient he briefly treated — a man with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — who had the misfortune to end up standing near a tailpipe for about five minutes while waiting for a bus. The man developed acute shortness of breath, and ended up hospitalized, in intensive care, intubated for nine days. “He couldn’t get air in or out of his lungs,” Dr. Rom said. “Air pollution nearly killed him.”

When it came Rep. McKinley’s turn to ask questions, here’s what he asked Dr. Rom:

Did you have any children who ever went outside without a coat on and they got sick for being outside?

I’m just curious, did this person have a level of personal accountability? If he had a pulmonary problem and stood there in front of an exhaust pipe for five minutes that you referred to, didn’t he just step back? Did you ever tell him that? Or did you say let’s blame the government or let’s blame that bus for running there?

Dr. Rom responded:

Well, he was intubated at that point, so I couldn’t raise the question.

In this Nov. 13, 2012 photograph, workers’ vehicles fill the parking lots at Mississippi Power’s Kemper County energy facility near DeKalb, Miss. The plant, still under construction, is designed to use a soft form of coal called lignite in a gasification process to generate power. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Earlier today, Southern Company’s Georgia Power announced another in a long line of retirements from the nation’s aging fleet of coal-fired power plants:

Georgia Power expects to request approval from the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) to decertify and retire 15 coal- and oil-fired generating units totaling 2,061 megawatts (MW), the company announced today.

The request to decertify units 3 and 4 at Plant Branch in Putnam County; units 1-5 at Plant Yates in Coweta County; units 1 and 2 at Plant McManus in Glynn County; and units 1-4 at Plant Kraft in Chatham County, will be included in Georgia Power’s updated Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that will be filed with the PSC on Jan. 31.

Units 3-4 at Branch, units 1-5 at Yates and units 1-3 at Kraft are coal-fired generating units. Kraft Unit 4 is oil- or natural gas-fired, and McManus units 1-2 are oil-fired.

Georgia Power said:

Several factors, including the cost to comply with existing and future environmental regulations, recent and forecasted economic conditions, and lower natural gas prices contributed to the decision to close these units.

Additionally, the company will ask for decertification of Boulevard 2 and Boulevard 3 combustion turbine generating units in Savannah upon approval of the IRP, due to the costs to repair and operate the units.

And CEO Paul Powers added:

We recognize the significant impact that these retirements will have on the local communities and we took that into account when making these decisions. These decisions were made after extensive analysis and are necessary in order for us to maintain our commitment to provide the most reliable and affordable electricity to our customers. We are in the midst of a significant transition in our fleet that will result in a more diverse fuel portfolio – including nuclear, 21st century coal, natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency – to ensure we maintain our commitment for generations to come.

The announcement reminded me of a recent Associated Press story, which the AP had dubbed “Southern’s Big Bet“:

In the woods of east Mississippi, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Co. is pouring billions of dollars into construction of a power plant that burns coal but would emit less carbon dioxide. It’s a response to looming federal limits on carbon emissions as regulators try to curtail global warming.

Each day, as 2,600 construction workers toil away at Plant Ratcliffe in Kemper County, the big bet becomes more expensive. The projected cost is at least $2.8 billion, almost half a billion dollars above original expectations, and some estimates say it will go higher.

Legal challenges brought by the Sierra Club have led regulators to block the company from billing customers for the costs so far, although Southern subsidiary Mississippi Power Co. got closer to that goal with a favorable lower court ruling earlier this month.


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EPA to tighten soot standards

Here’s the initial report (at least the first one I saw) from the Washington Post:

The Environmental Protection Agency will tighten the nation’s soot standardsby 20 percent Friday, a move that will force communities across the country to improve air quality by the end of the decade while making it harder for some industries to expand operations without strict pollution controls.

The new rule limits soot, or fine particulate matter, which stems from activities ranging from burning wood to vehicle emissions, and which causes disease by entering the lungs and bloodstream. Fine particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, ranks as the country’s most widespread deadly pollutant.

Ripe for retirement: Report targets coal plants

Here’s some news out this morning from the folks at the Union of Concerned Scientists:

As much as 18 percent of the country’s coal generating capacity should be considered for closure because the electricity it produces will be more expensive than energy from lower cost natural gas or wind power, according to a new independent analysis released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The peer-reviewed study, based on publicly available data on the U.S. coal fleet, used an economic test to evaluate whether every coal generator could compete – after being upgraded with modern pollution controls – with available cleaner, lower-cost energy resources.

The report, “Ripe for Retirement: The Case for Closing America’s Costliest Coal Plants,” found that as many as 353 coal generators, located in 31 states, may no longer be economically viable after they are upgraded with modern pollution controls. The power these generators produce would cost more than electricity produced by natural gas power plants and, in many cases, wind power. Collectively, these ripe-for-retirement generators produce approximately 6 percent of the nation’s power and represent 59 gigawatts (GW) of power generation capacity.

Steve Frenkel, report co-author and director of UCS’s Midwest office, said:

Our analysis shows that switching to cleaner energy sources and investing in energy efficiency often makes more economic sense than spending billions to extend the life of obsolete coal plants … Regulators should require utility companies to carefully consider whether ratepayers would be better off by retiring old coal plants and boosting electricity generation from natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind. Spending billions to upgrade old coal plants may simply be throwing good money after bad.

Coal kills: What is President Obama talking about?

President Barack Obama speaks during a grassroots event at Cornell College on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012., in Mount Vernon, Iowa. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

We’ve talked several times on this blog (see here, here and here, for example) about the ridiculous TV ads from the Obama administration that criticize Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney for stating the truth: That pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people.

Well now, after bringing it up in Tuesday night’s debate, President Obama has added a section on the issue to his stump speech, at least to a version of it he delivered yesterday in Athens, Ohio.   As Politico reports:

President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s newfound affinity for coal here, chuckling his way through an attack on his GOP rival’s coal bona fides and questioning his authenticity on a key local topic.

“I was listening to Gov. Romney yesterday talk about how he’s a champion of coal,” Obama said. “When he was a governor, he stood in front of a coal fire plant and said, ‘This plant kills people.’”

“Now he’s running around talking like he’s Mr. Coal,” Obama said. “Come on. Come on. You know that’s not on the level. And has anybody ever looked at that guy and said, ‘He’s really into coal?’”

The context of Gov. Romney’s comments has been pretty well documented before, by the National Journal, Salon, and the Wall Street Journal. But the important thing here is that the crux of the statement — that pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people — is true. And you don’t have to take my word for it — take the word of, just for one example, the National Academy of Sciences, which is one recent report estimated the “hidden costs” of health damage from coal-powered electricity at $62 billion annually across the U.S.  Or read Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, which found, among other things:

Estimates of nonfatal health endpoints from coal-related pollutants vary, but are substantial—including 2,800 from lung cancer, 38,200 nonfatal heart attacks and tens of thousands of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and lost work days. A review of the epidemiology of airborne particles documented that exposure to PM2.5 is linked with all-cause premature mortality, cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary mortality, as well as respiratory illnesses, hospitalizations, respiratory and lung function symptoms, and school absences. Those exposed to a higher concentration of PM2.5 were at higher risk. Particulates are a cause of lung and heart disease, and premature death, and increase hospitalization costs. Diabetes mellitus enhances the health impacts of particulates and has been implicated in sudden infant death syndrome. Pollution from two older coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Northeast was linked to approximately 70 deaths, tens of thousands of asthma attacks, and hundreds of thousands of episodes of upper respiratory illnesses annually.

Of course, power plant pollution is just one of the ways that coal contributes to premature deaths in this country. There’s also black lung disease, or the growing evidence that living near mountaintop removal coal-mining operations puts residents at increased risks.

So what exactly is President Obama getting at?

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New GAO report breaks down utility numbers

There’s a new report out today from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that provides some helpful breakdowns of information about power plant retirements, new EPA regulatory proposals, grid reliability and other matters. Here are a few of the highlights:

— It is uncertain how power companies may respond to four key Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, but available information suggests companies may retrofit most coal-fueled generating units with controls to reduce pollution, and that 2 to 12 percent of coal-fueled capacity may be retired. Some regions may see more significant levels of retirements. For example, one study examined 11 states in the Midwest and projected that 18 percent of coal-fueled capacity in that region could retire. EPA and some stakeholders GAO interviewed stated that some such retirements could occur as a result of other factors such as lower natural gas prices, regardless of the regulations. Power companies may also build new generating units, upgrade transmission systems to maintain reliability, and increasingly use natural gas to produce electricity as coal units retire and remaining coal units become somewhat more expensive to operate.

— Available information suggests these actions would likely increase electricity prices in some regions. Furthermore, while these actions may not cause widespread reliability concerns, they may contribute to reliability challenges in some regions. Regarding prices, the studies GAO reviewed estimated that increases could vary across the country, with one study projecting a range of increases from 0.1 percent in the Northwest to an increase of 13.5 percent in parts of the South more dependent on electricity generated from coal. According to EPA officials, the agency’s estimates of price increases would be within the historical range of price fluctuations, and projected future prices may be below historic prices.

— Regarding reliability, these actions are not expected to pose widespread concerns but may contribute to challenges in some regions. EPA and some stakeholders GAO interviewed indicated that these actions should not affect reliability given existing tools. Some other stakeholders GAO interviewed identified potential reliability challenges. Among other things, it may be difficult to schedule and complete all retrofits to install controls and to resolve all potential reliability concerns associated with retirements within compliance deadlines.

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AEP drops plans to retrofit Big Sandy coal plant

Erica Peterson over at WFPL has today’s scoop:

American Electric Power has changed its mind about the future of the coal-fired Big Sandy Power Plant in Eastern Kentucky. The company has an application pending with the Kentucky Public Service Commission to install pollution controls at the plant to continue burning coal. But WFPL has learned that AEP filed to withdraw the application today.

Now, instead of retrofitting the Big Sandy plant, the company says it plans to re-evaluate alternatives to comply with upcoming air pollution standards.

If you missed it, yes, this is indeed the same power plant that was the focus of today’s New York Times front-page story about the trend for utilities to move away from coal toward cheaper natural gas.  The Times story explained the history:

… When the operator of the Big Sandy plant announced last year that it would be switching from coal to cleaner, cheaper natural gas, people here took it as the worst betrayal imaginable.

“Have you lost your mind?” State Representative Rocky Adkins, a Democrat and one of Kentucky’s most powerful politicians, thundered at Michael G. Morris, the chairman of the plant’s operator, American Electric Power, during an encounter last summer. “You cannot wave the white flag and let the environmentalists and regulators declare victory here in the heart of coal country.”

Coal and electric utilities, long allied, are beginning to split. More than 100 of the 500 or so coal-burning power plants in the United States are expected to be shut down in the next few years. While coal still provides about a third of the nation’s power, just four years ago it was providing nearly half.

Here in Kentucky, the intervention by Mr. Adkins and other coal industry advocates has saved coal at Big Sandy, at least temporarily. American Electric Power, which is based in Columbus, Ohio, is proposing a $1 billion retrofit to allow the plant to continue burning coal and has asked Kentucky regulators to approve a 30 percent increase in electricity rates to pay for the work.

But that request, which will come up for a vote by the state’s utility commission within the next week, has inspired resistance from some residents, large industrial companies that consume much of Kentucky’s electricity and even the state attorney general’s office.

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In this Jan. 27, 2012 photo, a deck hand secures a barge in one of the chambers at the Montgomery Lock and Dam along the Ohio River in Monaca, Pa. Each barge holds an estimated 1,500 tons of coal, according to lock master Rick Greenwood.  (AP Photo/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Keith Hodan)

When last we left our good friend, West Virginia University mining engineering professor Syd Peng, he was wrongly opining — contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration — that the federal Clean Air Act wasn’t the proper tool for regulating global warming pollution.

Apparently, testifying on behalf of coal-mine operators in mine disaster cases isn’t taking up all of Dr. Peng’s time these days. So we had in yesterday’s Gazette another op-ed about national energy policies. The op-ed was headlined, “We need to back fossil fuels,” as if the nation and state aren’t doing a lot of that already:

Responsible people recognize that oil, natural gas and coal must provide a major share of the nation’s fuel mix to avoid potentially devastating economic consequences.

Like Dr. Peng’s earlier Gazette op-ed piece, “Congress should block EPA,” this latest commentary does little more than parrot the conventional line of the coal industry that funds WVU’s mining engineering school (see here, here and here).

But along the way, Dr. Peng doesn’t exactly get his facts right. Let’s review

First, Dr. Peng writes in his first two paragraphs:

We have an urgent national priority: moving forward with the development and demonstration of energy-efficient technologies that would enable America to burn fossil fuels more cleanly and cheaply.

With the outlook dimming for nuclear power and renewable energy sources, there are growing concerns that efforts to maintain air quality and combat global warming will fail as energy production increases in the years ahead.

With the outlook dimming for renewable energy sources? What is he talking about?

Even a freshman student at WVU could use Google to find this U.S. Energy Information Administration website that explains:

Renewable energy consumption increased by about 8% between 2008 and 2009, contributing about 8% of the Nation’s total energy demand, and 10% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2009.

And you don’t have to be a member of the West Virginia Coal Hall of Fame to find the most recent EIA projections that show:

Use of renewable fuels and natural gas for electric power generation rises: The natural gas share of electric power generation increases from 24 percent in 2010 to 27 percent in 2035, and the renewables share grows from 10 percent to 16 percent over the same period.

Dr. Peng may be correct, or at least reasonably close, when he writes that:

Fossil fuels meet 84 percent of U.S. energy demand, and the Energy Information Administration forecasts they will continue to be the primary energy sources well into the future.

But in his zeal to defend fossil fuels, and bash anything else, Dr. Peng writes:

Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to derail development of fossil fuels, energy companies are not backing off. Thanks to new technology and innovation, companies are tapping into vast domestic supplies of oil, natural gas and coal. And they are doing this without any new tax breaks or subsidies.

More than three-quarters of all energy tax breaks go to renewables such as solar and wind though they account for only 2 percent of electric power generation.

It’s true that the Obama administration has tried to take some reasonable steps to reduce some of the environmental impacts of fossil fuels, especially coal — things like tougher water quality guidance  standards on mountaintop removal and stronger air pollution limits on coal-fired power plants and on the booming natural gas drilling industry.  But President Obama also personally rejected EPA’s plans to combat smog, has ignored demands from environmental groups and scientists that he ban mountaintop removal altogether, and the administration has been very supportive of the natural gas boom overall, despite citizen concerns about the potential impacts.

And this subsidy stuff? Well, Dr. Peng sounds a lot like Sen. Joe Manchin, who tries to argue that coal doesn’t get government subsidiaries and renewable energy does, and assertion we’ve debunked before here on Coal Tattoo.

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Study: More emission cuts needed to reduce acid rain

There’s a new report on acid rain out this week from the folks at the U.S. Geological Survey. According to the agency’s press release:

Measurable improvements in air quality and visibility, human health, and water quality in many acid-sensitive lakes and streams, have been achieved through emissions reductions from electric generating power plants and resulting decreases in acid rain. These are some of the key findings in a report to Congress by the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, a cooperative federal program.

The report shows that since the establishment of the Acid Rain Program, under Title IV of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, there have been substantial reductions in sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from power plants that use fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil, which are known to be the primary causes of acid rain. As of 2009, emissions of SO2 and NOx declined by about two-thirds relative to levels in the 1990s. These emissions levels declined even further in 2010, according to recent data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Because emission reductions result in fewer fine particles and lower ozone concentrations in the air, in 2010 there were thousands fewer premature human deaths, hospital admissions, and emergency room visits annually leading to estimated human health benefits valued at $170 to $430 billion per year.

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EIA: Unscrubbed coal plants account for most SO2

As I’m catching up on all the news I missed being mostly unplugged for about two weeks, one thing that jumped out at my today was the above map, brought to us by the folks at DOE’s Energy Information Administration. The agency reports:

Coal-fired electric power plants make up the largest source of national sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions. The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) calls for a 53% reduction in SO2 emissions from the electric power sector by 2014. To meet this goal, plant owners can implement one of or a combination of three main strategies: use lower sulfur coal in their boilers, retire plants without emissions controls, or install emissions control equipment—primarily flue gas desulfurization (FGD) scrubbers. Plants with FGD equipment generated 58% of the total electricity generated from coal in 2010, while producing only 27% of total SO2 emissions.

Of course, then I saw this story from BNA:

A federal appeals court temporarily blocked an Environmental Protection Agency rule targeting power plant emissions that cross state lines, leaving an existing air pollution reduction program in place for at least several months (EME Homer City Generation L.P. v. EPA, D.C. Cir., No. 11-1302, stay ordered 12/30/11).

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is expected to be on hold through at least the spring while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit weighs legal challenges to the rule. In the meantime, a predecessor program, the Clean Air Interstate Rule, will continue to regulate interstate transport of power plant emissions.

Here’s another chart from the EIA:


In this photo taken Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011, pigeons fly past as the stacks of Dominion’s power plant tower over a nearby neighborhood in Salem, Mass. More than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states will be forced to shut down and another 34 might have to close because of new federal air pollution regulations, according to an Associated Press survey. Together, those plants produce enough electricity for more than 21 million households, but their demise is unlikely to cause homes to go dark.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

We’re still waiting this morning for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to announce its final Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, but in the meantime, Dina Cappiello at The Associated Press had a lengthy story that reports:

More than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states will be forced to shut down and an additional 36 might have to close because of new federal air pollution regulations, according to an Associated Press survey.

Together, those plants — some of the oldest and dirtiest in the country — produce enough electricity for more than 22 million households, the AP survey found. But their demise probably won’t cause homes to go dark.

The fallout will be most acute for the towns where power plant smokestacks long have cast a shadow. Tax revenues and jobs will be lost, and investments in new power plants and pollution controls probably will raise electric bills.

The survey, based on interviews with 55 power plant operators and on the Environmental Protection Agency’s own prediction of power plant retirements, rebuts claims by critics of the regulations and some electric power producers.

They have predicted the EPA rules will kill coal as a power source and force blackouts, basing their argument on estimates from energy analysts, congressional offices, government regulators, unions and interest groups. Many of those studies inflate the number of plants retiring by counting those shutting down for reasons other than the two EPA rules.

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Piles of coal are shown at NRG Energy’s W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Thompsons, Texas. The plant, which operates natural gas and coal-fired units, is one of the largest power plants in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin regulating mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants for the first time, the latest in a string of new regulations that has Republicans bent on reining in the federal body. (AP Photo)


It’s coming down to the wire for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finalize the first-ever limits on the emissions of toxic air pollutants from coal-fired power plants.  NPR’s Elizabeth Shogren explains:

More than 20 years ago, Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate toxic air pollution. It’s done that for most industries, but not the biggest polluters — coal and oil-burning power plants.

The EPA now plans to change that later this week, by setting new rules to limit mercury and other harmful pollution from power plants.

… When President George W. Bush took office, the power industry persuaded his EPA to adopt soft limits on mercury, but federal courts said that regulation was too weak, so it never went into effect.

Now, the court has set a deadline of Friday for the EPA to issue a new rule. The language the EPA wants would require quick action, stating that within three years, power plants that burn coal would have to cut more than 90 percent of the mercury from their exhaust.

They’d also have to slash arsenic, acid gases and other pollutants that cause premature deaths, asthma attacks and cancer. But even now, some power companies have been furiously fighting the EPA’s rule — especially its deadlines.

We’ve written about these rules — and the backlash against them by the local powers that be in coal country —  before here, here and here.  Earlier this week, the State Journal’s great reporter, Pam Kasey, had a local update on the story. Unfortunately, the headline probably overstated the case, perhaps leading people to again not understand that these AEP plants in West Virginia were going to close anyway, with or without the EPA rule. Pam’s story explains the situation more clearly:

In West Virginia, AEP has said it would shut down Appalachian Power Co.’s 1,105-MW Philip Sporn plant in Mason County and 439-MW Kanawha River plant in Kanawha County, along with Ohio Power Co.’s 713-MW Kammer plant in Marshall County. The plants represent more than 2,200 megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity in the state and about 240 jobs.

They accounted for about 7 percent of coal burned for power in the state in 2010 — not all of which is West Virginia coal. However, because they are old and inefficient, they accounted for only about one-tenth of one percent of West Virginia generation, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Asked whether these old plants wouldn’t be closing anyway, Appalachian Power Co. spokeswoman Jeri Matheney said they would, but not all together and so quickly.

And Pam did something much of the rest of the West Virginia media refuse to do … She explained the public health benefits of EPA’s proposal:

Mercury is a neurotoxin to which fetuses and children are particularly susceptible, while other targeted emissions cause cancer, chronic and acute respiratory disorders, and other illnesses.

The rule will require expensive upgrades to or installations of new emissions controls by Jan. 1, 2015, at an estimated 1,200 coal-fired units and 150 oil-fired units at 525 power plants.

When the agency issued its proposed rule in March, it estimated the 2016 cost of compliance at $10.9 billion. The 2016 benefits — realized primarily through 6,800 to 17,000 premature deaths avoided but also through the avoidance of 11,000 non-fatal heart attacks, more than 300,000 cases of respiratory illness including aggravated asthma and acute and chronic bronchitis, and 850,000 days of missed work — came to $59 billion to $140 billion.

My buddy Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal has recently reported:

Environmentalists are getting word that the White House may relax the EPA’s planned new rules on mercury and other toxic chemicals.

“We are informed reliably that the White House Office of Management and Budget, at the behest of the coal-burning electric power industry, is now pushing the EPA to weaken its mercury pollution control requirements in its upcoming toxic pollution rule for power plants,” reports longtime clean air advocate Frank O’Donnell. “Power companies could emit almost 20 percent more mercury under the dirty power industry scheme being promoted by OMB bean counters.”

It’s worth remembering that, back in September, President Obama personally blocked EPA from implementing new regulations to reduce smog …

Production update: More bad news for coal industry

Perhaps Monday morning is as good a time as any to ponder what a world we live in.

On Friday afternoon, Rep. David McKinley’s press agents were promoting his legislation to strip EPA of its ability to regulate toxic coal as as a “jobs bill.” On the House floor, the West Virginia Republican said anyone who voted against his legislation was personally responsible for the loss of 316,000 jobs — a figure he got from a fairly questionable industry report, and a number contradicted by another recent report.

Earlier last week, officials from American Electric Power were telling lawmakers that new environmental rules deserved a huge part of the blame for increased electricity rates, but then adding this, according to the Gazette’s Phil Kabler:

Asked whether the environmental requirements were excessive, [AEP subsidiary Appalachian Power vice president Mark] Dempsey said, “There are plenty of studies that back up the reasons for the requirements placed on us.”

And then, there was a new announcement from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, adding more weight to the concern that our region’s political leaders need a plan for the coming declines in the coal industry.  As Platts explained:

The US Energy Information Administration expects a 3.9% decline in the electricity generation sector’s coal consumption in 2012, it said Wednesday.

That fall in demand is somewhat steeper than EIA’s expectations a month ago, in its September Short-Term Energy Outlook, when it forecast a 2.3% drop in consumption, data shows.

Meanwhile, the EIA is expecting US coal production to decline by nearly 24 million st, or 2.2%, to about 1.045 million st in 2012 as domestic consumption and exports fall and inventories at electric power plants decline. In September, the agency expected 2012 output to be level with 2011’s levels at around 1.061 million st.

By region, output in Appalachia is expected to fall 5.6% to 319.7 million st in 2012. Production in the Interior is expected to drop 7.9% to 145.8 million st. Western production is projected to improve 1.4% to 579.6 million st.

The coal industry and coal-fired utilities continue to complaint that the Obama EPA’s proposals to reduce power plant air pollution are the end of the world … but here’s what Platts reported yesterday:

Up to 40 GW of additional coal plant retirements over the next two decades will result from regulations proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, consultancy ICF International said Monday in its third quarter Energy Outlook.

The report is a far cry from the consultancy’s first quarter report, which estimated that 68 GW of coal-fired plant retirements would occur over the same period due to the series of expected regulations.

The ICF news release is here, reporting:

Contrary to some projections that indicate environmental regulations will severely impact U.S. coal production, ICF projects that U.S. coal production and prices will remain stable. In particular, demand for low sulfur Powder River Basin coal and low-cost, high-sulfur Illinois Basin coal is expected to be strong.

Platts explained:

The current report bases its estimate of impact by taking into account the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, the Utility MACT, coal combustion residuals rule, a cooling water intake rule and a future CO2 rule. ICF estimates that the CO2 rule will be in effect by 2020, and assess a carbon price of $15/ton.

The new prediction falls below those forecasted by other analysts and industry insiders, which is partly because of analysts’ changing notion of the regulation details.

John Blaney, managing director of ICF, said:

I think everybody’s projections are evolving as the regulations change and as we learn about what will be contained in the forthcoming regulations.


Another, newer realization by the authors is that the coal plant retirements won’t affect coal consumption by utilities as much as previously thought.

“It’s a couple of things,” Blaney said. “First, most of the retirements are among smaller and older [plants] that are already running at lower capacity factors, so they’ll have proportionally less of an impact on demand than expected. And some of the existing plants will ramp up to meet extra demand.”

Coal plant rule update: Smog, mercury and coal ash

This April 6, 2006 file photo shows the Four Corners Power Plant, one of two coal-fired plants in northwest New Mexico, near Farmington, N.M. Owners of the 48-year-old plant, one of the nation’s largest of its kind, are being sued by a coalition of environmental groups over allegations the plant has failed to install the best available equipment to control pollution. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

There’s a flurry of news out today about coal-fired power plants, starting with word that the American Lung Association and other groups have sued over President Obama’s decision to block important new air pollution standards on smog. According to the press release from Earthjustice:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the stronger standards almost two years ago, but President Obama directed the EPA to drop the proposal on September 2, 2011. Rejection of the protective standards leaves in place weaker Bush-era ozone standards that leave tens of thousands of Americans at risk of suffering serious health impacts, according to leading medical organizations.

Earthjustice is representing the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council and Appalachian Mountain Club in this challenge.

Charles D. Connor, President and CEO of the American Lung Association, said:

The Obama Administration’s inaction in cleaning up ozone pollution, and its decision to ignore the strong recommendations of the scientific community, jeopardizes the health of millions of Americans. If the administration had followed the law, new smog standards would have saved lives and resulted in fewer people getting sick.

UPDATED: Our print story for tomorrow is posted online here.

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Counting up the costs of coal

We had a little story in today’s Gazette about a new study that’s making the rounds of the environmental press. It’s by three economists (two from Yale and one from Middlebury College) and was published in the most recent edition of the respected journal American Economic Review. As we reported:

Air pollution from coal-fired power plants costs the U.S. more in health damage than those plants contribute to the American economy, according to a new study in a respected economics journal.

Coal plants produce the largest “gross external damages” — $53 billion annually — of any of the industries examined in the new study published in the latest issue of The American Economic Review.

The story continued:

According to the study, the gross external damages (GED) of coal-fired power plants cost about twice the annual value added to the economy by those facilities.

“Coal plants are responsible for more than one-fourth of the GED from the entire U.S. economy,” says the study. “The damages attributed to this industry are larger than the combined GED due to the three next most polluting industries: Crop production, $15 billion/year, livestock production, $15 billion/year, and construction of roadways and bridges, $13 billion/year.”


If the potential costs of carbon dioxide pollution were included “the damages caused by oil- and coal-fired power plants are between 30 and 40 percent higher,” the study said.

“Although the damages from CO2 are large, they are not as large as GED,” the study said. “For the case of coal-fired power plants, CO2 causes an additional $15 billion in damages, which is relatively small compared to the GED of $53 billion.”

The study has gotten coverage from, as well from Grist here and from Think Progress.  There’s also an interesting mention of it here from The Heritage Foundation.

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