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Moving the Needle with Coal and the EPA

20091122_clinchThe Environmental Protection Agency has released a proposed rule that indicates, absent more progress (effective, scalable, reasonably economical progress) on carbon capture and sequestration, the days of coal are, perhaps, numbered:

The proposed rule — years in the making and approved by the White House after months of review — will require any new power plant to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced. The average U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 pounds of CO2 per megawatt, meets that standard; coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt.

And nuclear energy? No carbon emissions at all. Natural gas will be the chief beneficiary here – you could say that the rule was crafted with that in mind - at least as long as gas prices stay low and fracking doesn’t shake up the landscape. Renewable energy sources should benefit, too.

All these point the way forward, with the coal industry now under pressure to get CCS working as it will need to work to keep coal relevant. I know, I know – but never say never – coal remains plentiful and works as advertised, so abandoning it without trying to make it plausible under this new scenario seems economically foolish.

There are about 20 coal plants now pursuing permits; two of them are federally subsidized and would meet the new standard with advanced pollution controls.

But:

The proposal does not cover existing plants, although utility companies have announced that they plan to shut down more than 300 boilers, representing more than 42 gigawatts of electricity generation — nearly 13 percent of the nation’s coal-fired electricity — rather than upgrade them with pollution-control technology.

The story makes clear that natural gas is as responsible for this as regulation, but it’s just as clear that the electricity sector is moving the needle on carbon emissions in the absence of cap-and-trade. (They also built a fair number of coal plants in the interim – that is, between 2009 – after cap-and-trade failed in Congress – and last year – in anticipation of this rule. This is a countervailing force that one may now consider, er, vailed.)

At this point, though, it’s just a proposed rule. More to come.

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Here is Slate’s Matt Yglesias on this move:

The face of new fossil fuel based electricity will be gas (which is considerably cleaner than coal), and the alternative to gas in the event that the gas boom ends will be renewables.

He’s got quite the blind spot there, doesn’t he?

There are a surprising lot of nice shots of nuclear facilities, but surprisingly few of coal plants. They’re both big industrial structures, after all. I don’t know why that should be.

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