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EPA To Regulate Coal Plants, Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Climate skeptics sometimes insist that putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere can’t be pollution because CO2 is necessary to life. It’s a seriously bizarre argument: water is also necessary to life, but you can die if you drink too much of it. Decades of research by hundreds of scientists have made it absolutely clear that carbon dioxide generated by fossil-fuel burning traps excess heat, with disruptive effects we’ve already begun to see.

That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency ruled in 2009 that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide “threaten the public welfare of current and future generations,” and that the agency could therefore regulate them under the Clean Air Act. That ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court and reaffirmed last year, but despite its authority to do so, the EPA hasn’t actually come out with any limits on heat-trapping gases.

Coal power plant (NIPSCO) in Michigan City, IN. Credit: Donna's Eye/flickr.

That's about to change. Tuesday, the EPA released new regulations that will require new power plants to emit no more than 1,000 lb. of carbon dioxide for each megawatt of electricity they generate — the first such regulations ever imposed. Existing or already-approved plants are exempt, but since coal-fired power plants generate around 1,800 lbs. of CO2 per megawatt, this pretty much means that no more coal plants will be built unless they use some form of carbon capture and storage. Since that technology won’t be commercially available for years, though, and since it’s likely to be costly, that doesn’t change matters. Natural-gas plants, by contrast, come in at under 1,000, so they won’t be affected.

The companies that dig up coal for profit are naturally not happy. “The rule from our standpoint is a big mistake,” Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, told the New York Times. “It is virtually calculated to drive coal, a very, very affordable generator of electricity, out of the U.S. electricity market.”

So to paraphrase a line from one of the greatest gangster movies of all time, is this the end of coal? Not really, given that the approximately 300 coal-fired plants that already exist can keep chugging merrily along. Since coal accounts for some 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, you’d think this would be a big victory for the environment, but environmental activists aren’t falling all over themselves to celebrate their triumph. The reason, as Matthew Yglesias puts it in Slate:

“This is both a historic event and in many ways not that big a deal . . . even before the EPA got in the game, new coal was basically dead in the United States. Cheap gas, the falling price of solar, community activism, and the risk of CO2 regulation had already created the situation where no new post-2012 conventional coal was in the pipeline anyway.”

Beyond that, as a recent study showed, the shift away from coal to natural gas isn’t going to help all that much with global warming, anyway.

Nevertheless, the ruling is still important. By itself, it’s not going to alter the course of climate change significantly. But having established its authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and now having issued the first rules under that authority, the EPA has shown that it’s willing to take action. And that lays the groundwork for future action that could be a lot more stringent.

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