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Federal EPA's pollution rules may oust coal

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By John D. Oravecz
Thursday, May 8, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
 

The Obama administration's ambitious plan to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants would be “the nail in the coffin” for coal, says the head of the industry's Pennsylvania trade group.

“We believe you'll see a dramatic increase in the closing of coal-fired power plants because they would no longer be economically viable,” John Pippy, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, said on Wednesday.

Utilities have announced nearly 300 coal-fired generating units in 33 states will shut down as a result of the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed carbon regulations for new power plants, and emission standards for mercury and other hazardous air pollutants. The plan is expected in June.

Environmental experts say the upcoming standards for reducing carbon emissions from coal-fired plants are the holy grail in President Obama's plans for power-plant standards.

“It will be the nail in the coffin if they go in the same direction,” said Pippy, who met with Tribune-Review reporters and editors.

The proposed rules don't address carbon dioxide from existing plants, said Joe Osborne, legal director for the nonprofit Group Against Smog and Pollution. “I know there are a number of rules that impact the coal industry, but given global warming, and that this is a source that's not been addressed, this is necessary.”

Standards proposed have “left a big block of generating capacity untouched,” said Kevin Jones, deputy director for energy technology and policy at the Vermont Law School. The EPA will address the “worst polluters,” he said.

Carbon dioxide constituted 84 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, Jones said, and the electric power industry accounted for 33 percent. Coal plants led the way as the worst source of that pollution.

Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health for the Allegheny County Health Department, said that based on what is expected, “it certainly will make it more difficult for coal-based power plants to operate in the future, especially the ones that are not very efficient.”

“The really old ones operating for more than 30 to 40 years will have a tougher time meeting the new regulations, and that may result in some closures,” Thompson said, though he does not believe the rules will have a major effect in the Pittsburgh region.

Utilities could build natural gas-fired plants or convert some to natural gas.

Nevertheless, Pippy said, coal remains the top fuel source to generate power in the United States. Coal's share of the power generation mix is 42 percent, compared with 25 percent for natural gas, 19 percent for nuclear, and 14 percent from solar, wind and others, according to the Energy Information Agency.

Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest coal-producing state.

The EIA estimates that coal will be the top source in the world by 2027 because economic growth overseas will negate U.S. efforts to control pollution, Pippy said.

“I like to say, it's all pain and no gain,” he said.

EPA rules would force the shutdown of as many as half the nation's 600 coal-fired power plants and end thousands of jobs, Pippy said.

John D. Oravecz is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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