Second-Term Battle Lines Drawn in 'War on Coal'

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers from Kentucky, West Virginia, and other coal-producing states maintain the Obama administration is engaging in a war on coal because of the perceived environmental impact of coal-burning power plants, particularly as it pertains to global climate change.

The Obama administration, said Rep. Shelley Moore-Capito (R-W.Va.), “is seeking to turn us away from coal and keep the war on coal and drive up energy prices.’’

Coal, which for decades has served as the nation’s principal energy source, is losing ground, primarily as a result of its impact on the environment. Scientists hold that burning coal to produce electricity produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, contributing to global climate change.

In recent years, power companies have turned to natural gas, a cleaner fuel available in abundance. According to the Energy Information Administration, burning coal produced about 48.5 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2007. By 2012, that total had slipped to 37.4 percent.

That fact alone has placed the industry – and the states that rely on coal as an economic cornerstone – in a bind. Rather than provide a helping hand, coal state lawmakers claim, the Obama administration is rendering the situation infinitely more difficult in several ways.

In his State of the Union speech and in subsequent forums, Obama made it clear that the EPA intends to promulgate tough new regulations regarding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions if Congress fails to act on its own. No new rules have been issued yet, but the agency appears to be on the verge of introducing restrictions on new coal-fired power plants that critics claim will be impossible to meet.

EPA also has hinted that it is contemplating tougher air restrictions on existing power plants – a move that critics fear will force several facilities to shut down.

At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and others have accused the EPA of slow-walking the mining permit process to forestall production of an energy source that has failed to gain the administration’s favor.

McConnell has introduced legislation intended to force the EPA to act on mining permits within a specified period of time. Failure to do so would result in those permits being granted.

“This EPA has turned the coal permitting process into an illegitimate, back-door means to shut down coal mines permanently by sitting on permits indefinitely and removing any certainty from the regulatory process,’’ McConnell said. “By playing this game of ‘run out the clock,’ they have put many Kentucky mining operations into limbo and cost Kentucky thousands of jobs and over $123 million in coal severance money.”

The agency, McConnell said, is “changing the rules in the middle of the game. And they’ve done it all without a single vote in Congress. What EPA is doing is outside the scope of its authority, outside the scope of the law, and represents a fundamental departure from the permitting process as originally envisioned by Congress.’’

But by far the largest hurdle for the coal industry is dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and the EPA’s threat to crack down. Lisa Jackson, the agency’s former administrator, said the rules are needed to protect the public health and will “benefit the American people for years to come.’’

“There is no debate within the science community, based on the peer-reviewed literature, about the large changes occurring in the earth’s climate and the fact that these changes are occurring as a response to human activities, mainly burning fossil fuels,’’ said Dr. Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois.

The National Climatic Data Center maintains that 2011 and 2012 had some of the most extreme weather events -- including major droughts, heat waves, storms tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires -- in the nation’s history, resulting in $60 billion in damages.

“While we are already seeing the climatic effects of our emissions of heat-trapping gases, it is important to recognize that the future lies largely in our hands,’’ Wuebbles said. “Will we reduce our emissions and have a future with less warming and less severe impacts, or will we continue to increase our emissions and have a future with more warming and more severe impacts, including more extreme weather events?’’

The EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act as a result of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In doing so the agency doesn’t have to seek a go-ahead from Congress, a fact that draws the ire of Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy.

Whitfield maintains any decision “should be made on the floor of the House of Representatives and on the floor of the United States Senate, not by a group of regulators who determine that they want to put coal out of business.”

The EPA was supposed to issue its final rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new or modified power plants on April 13 but put off the announcement until an unspecified date to deal with the more than 2 million comments it has received on the proposal. The agency has yet to send the final rule as required to the Office of Management and Budget for regulatory review. That process alone can take months.

Critics maintain if the draft rule is adopted it would effectively represent a ban on new coal-fired power plants and make it more difficult for existing plants to modify their workings.  Thus, the rule would amount to an effective ban on new coal-fired power plants, as well as imposing severe restrictions on modification of existing plants.

On March 14, four Democratic senators -- Joe Manchin of West Virgina, Heidi Heitkamp  of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana -- sent a letter to Obama asking him to step in and urge the EPA to reconsider its draft rule, asserting that the U.S. “can continue to use coal and continue to lower emissions at the same time.’’

But, the lawmakers said, the EPA package would require new coal-fired plants to meet the same emissions standards as new natural gas-fired plants which, at this time, isn’t possible.

The regulation “will have the unfortunate effect of preventing the construction of new coal plants or the upgrading of existing sources. Such a consequence could actually block potential GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions reductions, endanger our electricity supply and harm our economy.’’

Whitfield also argued the rule, once finalized, will make it “impossible to build a new coal-powered plant in America because the technology is not available to meet the emissions standards required by EPA,” he said. “We would be the only country in the world in which you would not be able to build a coal powered plant to produce electricity.’’

McConnell noted that coal is a vital factor in his state’s economy and an important part of the nation’s energy portfolio.

“The EPA’s attack on this important Kentucky industry hampers the growth of jobs and it especially hampers the growth of small business – the greatest engines of job creation,” he said.

But the picture isn’t completely black. The U.S. has more proven coal reserves than anywhere else in the world and is making use of that fact globally. In 2012 the U.S. exported 126 million short tons of coal, bettering the previous record high set in 1981 by 12 percent. The increase exceeded the Department of Energy’s projections by 30 percent.

While the use of coal is diminishing in the U.S. it is growing elsewhere. The International Energy Agency finds that coal will rival oil as the world’s top primary energy source by 2017. More than 1,100 coal-fired power plants are under some form of development around the world, leaving the possibility for continued export growth.