Politics and coal

Dirty energy source requires cleanup or retirement

As a region situated downwind of two of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the United States, Southwest Colorado is no stranger to the effects that energy source has on air quality. Haze-filled canyons and eerily Technicolor sunsets are commonplace throughout the area, a phenomenon owed to visibility inhibitors that emit in large quantities from the Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. The associated effects on human and environmental health are not inconsequential.

It is beyond time to stand firmly in defense of coal and instead look for ways to lessen its harmful effects as an energy source, as politicians across the country are too often tempted to do these days. That reality is not lost on the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been busily making rules requiring such a cleanup, and the two plants closest to home here are in negotiations with the agency’s regional offices over just how those rules will finally affect the facilities.

A significant factor in those discussions, as with all such regulatory processes, is the economic fallout that accompanies any cleanup requirements. Installing adequate scrubbing technology is no small line item, and passing the cost along to electricity consumers is correspondingly challenging for power plant operators – and doing the math is driving some plants to close or convert to cleaner fuels such as natural gas. There is pain in that transition, but given the harmful environmental and human consequences of the unfettered burning of coal, investing in the shift is worth the cost over the long term.

The EPA has hardly run roughshod over the coal industry in imposing cleanup requirements, and instead has taken ample time to study the specific pollution issues associated with each plant, as well as considered the political and economic realities of the region in which it is located.

These are not willy-nilly regulations that embody every demand issued by environmentalists, nor are they milquetoast rules that capitulate to industry concerns. In fact, on balance, the requirements attempt to strike a balance between the two by factoring in the costs and benefits associated with cleaning up coal, with the pivotal understanding that the social marginal benefit of improved air quality and health outweighs the private marginal cost of investing in the technology. The facilities’ operators are left with the choice of how to proceed most profitably.

As circumstances and technology change in the energy industry as well as in the economy, the political reality must follow suit. That is the case with coal: Its harmful effects are becoming undeniable and the EPA is obligated to recognize those effects and respond accordingly. With corresponding changes in the natural-gas industry that make the resource more affordable, it is not without merit to consider a shift.

The ultimate result of such a move can have significant benefits for human and environmental health as well as economic viability, all while lessening the United States’ overall contribution to climate change.

Achieving that result will not come without trade-offs, though, and there will be difficult decisions to make along the way. That should not be allowed to derail the transition – either to truly cleaner-burning coal facilities or to those that use another resource altogether.

The challenges in striking that balance are not small, but the consequences of failing to do so – as Southwest Colorado has seen – are too large to be ignored.