EPA regulations

Friday, the Obama administration announced new regulations on emissions from power plants. They are the first rules to limit the amount of carbon pollution new power plants can discharge into the atmosphere.

It is a welcome move forward, even if it will not immediately affect air quality or climate change. As much as anything, the changes enacted signal a clear direction and suggest the next step – regulating emissions from existing plants.

Under the new rules, any large natural gas-fired plants to be built would be limited to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide discharged per megawatt hour. New coal-fired plants would be limited to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.

The rules apply only to new plants, and no new coal-fired plants are on the drawing boards. Politico says two are in the works, but are far-enough along to have already been granted air permits.

The real impact should be in the future. Gas-fired plants can fairly easily meet the new standard using existing technology. Coal-fired plants cannot comply without the development of “carbon capture and storage” technology, which is at best unproven.

That has the coal industry and its supporters up in arms about Obama’s “war on coal.” They contend the regulations threaten everything from lost jobs and increased electric rates to higher gas prices.

The rules have also divided the president’s supporters. The head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said the rules “threaten economic growth and America’s future.” At the same time, the chief counsel of the Center for Biological Diversity said, “If we’re really serious about tackling climate change ... we just have to do more than this.”

And, of course, lawmakers from coal-producing states have bipartisan objections. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the EPA “is trying to hold the coal industry to impossible standards.” While in Kentucky, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and a Democratic challenger are vying to see who can be the most vocally pro-coal.

All of that misses the point and ignores the facts. Burning less coal is, indeed, part of the benefit of these new regulations, but that is going to happen one way or the other. To the extent there is a war on coal, the public should applaud. But the other side of that war is reality, not the EPA.

The magazine Forbes reported Monday on a study by the U.S. Energy Information Agency that examined the competition between natural gas and coal. The agency looked at “five scenarios reflecting variations in cost and supply of the two fuels.” In every case – and without considering the effect of the regulations announced Friday – U.S. coal-fired generating capacity is projected to keep decreasing through 2040.

It cites four factors for that: efficiency, competitiveness, flexibility and regulation. In every area, gas wins.

Coal fueled the industrial revolution and helped electrify the world. But its economics are predicated on externalizing its inherent costs and that cannot continue. Writing in Slate, Mathew Yglesias likens the coal industry to a restaurant that cuts costs by dumping its garbage in the alley instead of paying to have it hauled away. Coal-fired power plants dump their waste in our air, and they likely always will.

The United States is said to be the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” And in response to Friday’s regulatory announcement, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the EPA “will write off our huge, secure, affordable coal resources.” But as others have observed, the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones.

The EPA’s regulation of power-plant exhaust is simply one small step toward a new, cleaner era.

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