Keeping Coal Dirty and Dangerous

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					Keeping Coal Dirty and Dangerous
Tom. Power
Keeping Coal Dirty and Dangerous:
EPA Undermines Clean Coal Technology Adoption

Despite President Bush’s support for the development of a “Zero Emission” coal-
fired electric generating technology, his policies have actually aimed at reducing
the legal pressure on coal-fired utilities to clean up their emissions.

A loophole written into the 1977 Clean Air Act allowed older coal power plants to
avoid cleaning up their emissions. The fear at the time was that it would be too
costly to retrofit these older plants with emission controls. It was assumed that
these plants would soon be retired any way and if the focus was on making new
plants as clean as possible, we would move in a cost-effective way towards
significantly cleaner use of coal.

Of course that is not what happened. That exemption from the Clean Air Act
made these older, dirtier, and less efficient plants more financially valuable.
Instead of investing in new coal-fired electric plants that would have to install the
best available pollution control technologies, utilities systematically invested in
refurbishing the old dirty plants, a little at a time, stretching their effective lives out
indefinitely. As a result, 30 years later these dirty plants continue to operate
without modern pollution controls. Almost a third of the coal-fired electric
generating capacity in the nation doesn’t have to scrub its air emissions. They
just keep dumping their crud into the air, leading to an estimated 20,000
premature deaths each year in the United States from the particulate, sulfur and
nitrogen oxide pollution.

The Clinton Administration, late in the 1990s, tried to reverse that by forcing
these old dirty plants to install new control technologies any time they engaged in
any significant refurbishing aimed at extending their operational lives. The utilities
howled and the new Bush Administration backed off, offering in its place
something euphemistically called its “Clear Skies Initiative.” This effectively
allows these old dirty coal plants to operate without pollution controls until 2018,
a full 40 years after the passage of the Clean Air Act.

Now Bush’s EPA has acted to make sure that new coal-fired plants also remain
unnecessarily dirty. Over the years, with research and development heavily
subsidized by the federal government, a new coal technology has been
developed that allows a much more thorough cleansing of coal plant air
emissions. Instead of simply pulverizing coal and burning it, the new technology
actually first gasifies the coal to produce a synthetic gas which then goes through
a variety of cleaning steps that removes most of the particulate, mercury, and
sulfur. The resulting clean gas is then burned in a gas turbine to produce
electricity and the waste heat from that is also used to produce steam to
generate even more electricity.

This Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle technology offers the cleanest way
of using coal to generate electricity. Because the exhaust gases from the process
consist of almost solely of carbon dioxide, it is potentially feasible to go a step
further and capture the carbon dioxide and permanently sequester it rather than
dumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. In that sense, this technology
is an important first step towards the Zero Emmissions coal technology Bush was

It is not surprising that environmental groups and parts of the electric utility
industry, including the nation’s largest electric utility, have been pushing this
technology as the only legitimate way to use coal in the 21st century to generate
electricity. They want regulators to mandate the use of Integrated Gasification
Combined Cycle technology for all proposed new coal-fired electric generators.
Since the Clean Air Act requires the use of the “Best Available Control
Technology,” clean air advocates see a tremendous opportunity to clean up new
electric plants as the current rush to coal gains momentum.

Bush’s EPA, in a backdoor maneuver aimed at allowing it to avoid having to
publicly promulgate controversial new regulations weakening air quality
protection, recently declared that Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle
technology would not have to be considered by those proposing to build new
coal-fired generators. That is, EPA on its own, has reject the Best Available
Control Technology and committed Americans to coping with the mercury, sulfur,
and particulate pollution associated with these new plants for their entire 50 year
lives. This action also moves the nation further away from control of carbon
emissions any time soon.

As the impact of climate change becomes clearer and more dramatic with each
new scientific study, and as the health impacts associated with the particulate,
sulfur, and mercury coming from our power plants is better and better
documented, the Bush Administration is moving to build a whole new dirty loop
hole into the Clean Air Act. “Clean coal,” “Zero Emissions” coal use, and “clear
skies” are simply Orwellian language to protect dirty industrial interests and
burden future generations with the dangerous consequences of not acting
responsibly today.