Washington View: Coal, natural gas still viable options
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Recently, the EPA proposed new air quality regulations for power plants that activists say will finally kill King Coal.
The rule would require all new power plants to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, or CO2, by almost 44 percent. While natural gas plants can meet the standard, coal-fired plants cannot without expensive carbon-capture and storage technology that is not commercially available.
While EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stresses the standards will apply only to new power plants, some experts say the Clean Air Act explicitly requires the government to apply the standards to existing plants as well.
David Doniger, climate program policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed, saying, “We look forward to reaching an agreement with EPA on a schedule for completing the standard for new sources and developing standards for existing sources.”
Environmental activists hailed the new standard and Rolling Stone reported, “For all intents and purposes, coal is dead as a new power source for 21st-century America.”
So, the question is, if not coal, what?
Coal currently supplies 40 percent America’s electricity and half the world’s electricity. Affordable, efficient and plentiful, coal use is expected to increase to meet growing global demand. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu notes that, “Coal is an abundant resource in the world. It is imperative that we figure out a way to use coal as cleanly as possible.”
Accordingly, the federal government has partnered with states, municipalities and private utilities to develop and test clean coal technology. The technology includes using superheated temperatures to reduce emissions, coal gasification, which turns coal into a form of natural gas, storing CO2 emissions from coal plants underground, and even turning coal into gas while it’s still underground, eliminating the need for coal mines.
You’d think environmental groups would support projects to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants — especially low sulfur coal from southeast Montana and Wyoming — but they do not.
Impossible to please
The Sierra Club, which vows to “retire one-third of the nation’s aging coal plants by 2020,” makes no distinction on its hit list between aging plants and new high-tech projects, proclaiming “victory” at stopping plants designed to use the latest carbon capture technology. The website notes, “106 retired, 416 to go.”
Some analysts say the demise of coal will not be a problem because of the growing supply of cleaner, affordable natural gas. But many of the same environmental protesters targeting coal are also working to stop natural gas projects.
So, if not natural gas, then what?
Environmental groups certainly support wind power as an alternative, yes? Not necessarily. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce database includes scores of wind farm projects delayed or derailed because of disputes over their impact on scenic areas and migrating birds. Electricity from wind is all right as long as they don’t have to look at a ridge dotted with wind mills.
In any event, renewable energy alone is not the answer. Energy Secretary Chu notes that, even at full build out, utilizing every type of alternative energy in every possible location, renewable sources could supply only 20-30 percent of our energy needs.
If opponents succeed in their campaigns to eliminate oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power, where will the other 70 to 80 percent come from?