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Overshadowed ruling lets EPA proceed against power-plant pollution

Southern Company's Plant Bowen in Cartersville, Georgia is one of the largest coal-fired plants in the US.

So much attention has been focused on the Supreme Court’s  Obamacare ruling that another recent D.C.-area court decision has passed with little notice, even though it will have a major impact on U.S. energy production and global-warming emissions. 

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled last week that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was “unambiguously correct” in using existing federal law to address carbon-based global warming.

Plaintiffs were contesting 2009 EPA rulings that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO) “reasonably may be anticipated to endanger public health.” The agency followed 2009 with the “tailpipe rule” in May 2010, setting limits on COgas emissions from cars and light trucks. Then on July 6, 2011, the EPA finalized a rule, known as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), that requires states to significantly improve air quality by reducing power-plant emissions that cross state lines. 

Free to implement restrictions

Challenges to these EPA regulations were denied by the Court of Appeals panel, and the EPA is now free to implement its proposed new restrictions on carbon emissions from all new fossil fuel burning power plants with a capacity exceeding 25 megawatts (MW). These plants may not emit more than 1,000 pounds of CO per MW hour of power produced. New natural gas power plants meet this standard; new coal plants emit nearly twice the CO amount in the EPA rule. Nuclear plants emit no CO. The EPA notes that it is technically possible for coal plants to meet the standard by capturing and storing the carbon from the plants flue gas (CCS). But CCS is expensive and impractical, and there is no successful coal plant with CCS anywhere in the world.

Coal’s share of electric power fuel is already declining. Restrictions on coal’s other harmful emissions, such as mercury and sulfur (acid rain), are causing a shift to natural gas, which lacks those elements and produces less CO. From a 50 percent share of the U.S. electric power market five years ago, coal supplied just 42 percent in 2011, and it is now below 40 percent in the first quarter of 2012. A rise in natural gas use from 20 percent to more than 25 percent at our electric utilities is making up the difference — with help from intermittent wind and solar power, which have risen from 1 percent to 3-4 percent of U.S. electric energy supply.

Fossil-fuel hydrocarbons like coal and natural gas produce CO when burned, as their carbon atoms unite with oxygen and make CO. Coal is nearly all carbon, so it makes a lot of CO. The methane in natural gas has the formula CH4, so it has a lower carbon content. Some of its energy comes from hydrogen (H) uniting with oxygen and making water vapor, which is why natural gas produces half the CO of coal per unit of energy.

Trend will continue

Currently low natural-gas prices are also nearly equal to coal’s low price, so the trend to more natural gas for electricity will continue as the new court decision will allow the EPA  to restrict coal use. There is a concern among utilities that with this increased demand, natural gas prices could rise to 3 or 4 times current levels as they did a few years earlier.

One answer for this is nuclear power, which has lower and stable fuel costs than coal or gas, and which already supplies 20 percent of our electric energy. Nuclear plants emit only water vapor. New nuclear plants like the Westinghouse AP1000 cost about $5 billion to build in the United States, but they last for at least 60 years and produce 8-9 billion kwh/year. This makes the construction cost less than a penny per kwh over the life of the plant. The AP1000 is popular in China, which is building them for less than $3 billion with a construction time of 50 months.

Among the safest industries

In the U.S. for all of 2011, the nuclear industry reached record levels for industrial safety, placing it among the safest industries in U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics rankings. Overall, the 104 reactors ran at 91.4 percent of capacity, with nearly all of the down time being the planned halt every 20-22 months for refueling and maintenance. Reactor No. 2 at Prairie Island, Minn., recently operated continuously for the 20-plus months between planned shutdowns, providing the reliable base load power needed by the electric grid. 

The events at Fukushima have caused the old fears of nuclear accidents and radiation to rise. But while the Japanese tsunami is responsible for more than 22,000 deaths, there have been no injuries or deaths in Japan from radiation as a result of the incident.

It is clear that coal burning will continue to decline for electric power generation, and that clean and reliable nuclear energy is the likely long-term answer for base load electric power generation.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and the American Nuclear Society.


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 07/02/2012 - 10:58 am.

    Overall, a well-written overview

    While I don’t necessarily share his rosey view of the future of nuclear power, either here or abroad, Rolf’s comments on the importance of the recent Court of Appeals ruling and his anaysis on coal’s decling role is spot-on.

    Nicely done, sir!

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 07/02/2012 - 02:37 pm.


    Thank you, Robert. Just for that I will admit that E-85 has real potential.

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/02/2012 - 08:53 pm.

    One might argue that the elimination of coal use in the US, which is what this EPA regulation will eventually accomplish, is less environmentally friendly than allowing coal to be burnt here.

    The coal is still being mined but it is shipped to China or similar places where clean air regulations either don’t exist or aren’t enforced. Since we already know how to build coal plants that don’t spew particulates and other toxins, its seems silly to send our cheap coal where it will be used in ways that would never be allowed here while we could be using it to keep energy prices low in an environmentally acceptable way here.

    In my view, this EPA is not solving any US environmental problem with this regulation and is actually aggravating the environmental problems elsewhere. Sorta like the Canadian coal tar sands issue….

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 07/03/2012 - 08:10 am.

      People in China have to breathe, too

      Sooner or later, they will adopt environmental regulations to reduce air pollution associated with coal, just as we are doing now. Look how long it took the USA to start cleaning up its act — the Clean Air Act and EPA didn’t even exist before the Nixon Administartion.

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 07/03/2012 - 04:55 am.

    Coal exports are rising, but at present they are mostly higher priced metallurgical coal. Total coal exports are about 10% of our total production. Richard has a point, but China and others will get the coal from Australia and others if we don’t sell it. For us it is a way to pay for all of what we import to buy at Walmart, BestBuy, etc .
    We don’t export any Canadian tar sands crude oil. We do refine it and sell finished product – gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc – to primarily Latin America from our Gulf coast refineries. It’s good business and creates tens of thousands of good jobs at our efficient refineries which have the capability to process that sulfurous heavy oil. The largest heavy oil refinery in the world is situated at Pine Bend, MN. It exports refined product to Wisconsin and Iowa.

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