By Luke Popovich
It’s by now no secret that the Barack Obama Administration doesn’t like the coal industry and appears indifferent to those who work in it. While the White House meekly backs away from confronting foreign bad guys — acting like Boy George and Neville Chamberlain to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin — it acts like Tamerlane or Attila the Hun when confronting its own people from U.S. coalfields.
Whether vetoing coal permits in Appalachia or shutting down coal-based plants in the Midwest, the administration cleaves to a conviction that the country doesn’t need coal and is better off without it. Oh, and sorry about the jobless and those utility bills.
This conviction will be tested in November. But the assertions the administration makes to support it are suddenly being challenged right now by some unfamiliar sources. Adding to criticism by coal industry and its allies in Congress and in state capitals are new voices: energy experts. We’re hearing from experts in the utility and technology industries as well as from the government — some even in the administration. This last development must really irritate White House officials. Imagine a chef trying to sell diners on a new menu, only to hear the waiters telling patrons they never eat the stuff.
It all began innocently enough this winter, when Rep. Joe Barton of Texas asked the deputy assistant secretary for fossil energy if the Energy Department had looked at the costs of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) greenhouse gas rule for new coal plants. Recall the EPA has proposed that the only new plants that would meet the standard would be those built with carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) — a technology that is neither proven nor commercially available, even if utility companies could afford it.
Why yes, we have examined the costs, said DOE official Julio Friedman. The rule would send wholesale electricity costs up by 80%, he said. Friedman could now be in a witness protection program after his refreshing candor armed EPA’s critics with exactly the ammo they needed to drive home the cost of regulations to average Americans.
Around the same time, energy experts at the Energy Information Administration dropped another shoe in the soup. The agency revised upward its forecast of the coal plant capacity that would be forced into retirement by the 2010 air toxics rule. The EPA estimated it would claim only 10 megawatts; actually no, said EIA, closer to 50 megawatts — 16% of the total — is what your rule will drive out of the grid. Oops.
Of course, all the while, the EPA has been defending its claim that CCS is a technology ready for prime time. Various components of CCS have been in operation here and there, said the agency. Just do it. For proof, they point to the Kemper facility, Southern Company’s state-of-the-art gasification plant rising from the lowlands of Mississippi.
But this spring company officials went on record to disagree, insisting Kemper isn’t proof of CCS readiness. Aside from the budget-busting cost, the carbon dioxide removed from combustion will be sold for enhanced oil recovery in nearby oil fields thanks to the plant’s geographical position that makes Kemper possible but also unique. Even experts from Alstom testified in April that, promising as it is, the CCS technology the company has pioneered is not yet commercially mature. So the company that makes the technology and the company that will use it contradict the environmental advocates at EPA. Who would you believe?
EPA’s view that coal is yesterday’s solution was tested in real time this winter, when an exceptionally cold spell forced utilities to use most all the coal plant capacity they’ve scheduled for retirement. Federal grid regulators — experts on the power grid — warned that this winter’s experience portends trouble ahead if EPA forces more coal out of the system. “If you take enough supply out of the system, the price is going to increase,” said Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Commissioner Philip Moeller.
None of this expert testimony deters the administration; history will absolve them. But while the administration pleas with us to act on climate change, federal bean counters and data miners, technology providers, utility executives and grid overseers all respond with a different plea: It’s not just about the cost of doing nothing, it’s about the cost of doing the wrong thing.
Luke Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.