EPA’s misguided attempt to pour coal emissions down the drain

May 31, 2023 3:00 am

A coal-fired power plant in Romeoville, Illinois. Scott Olson/GettyImages)

As an environmental engineer who supports strong climate action, I oppose the Biden administration’s plan to force the shutdown of coal plants. That might seem surprising, but it shouldn’t be. Without coal to meet the nation’s need for electricity, we face the specter of widespread power shortages.

That warning came from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) at a Senate hearing on electricity reliability. Despite the shutdown of many coal plants in recent years, coal provides more than half of the electricity in many states, especially in the Midwest. There are 194 coal plants remaining in the U.S., but about a quarter of the plants are already scheduled to retire by 2029, according to the Energy Information Administration. A recent blitz of  regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, culminating in rules designed to eliminate carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants, would end the use of coal for electricity generation.

Imagine the backlash if millions of Americans win up without air conditioning on hot days. Or next winter if people freeze in the dark. The danger is that electricity shortages could mean people falling ill and dying. And what good is shutting down power plants if blackouts disrupt the rhythms of daily life that provide happiness?

The EPA’s recently proposed regulations to eliminate carbon emissions from power plants have been much heralded by environmentalists because they would make coal plants too costly to operate. To meet these new rules, coal plants would have to capture carbon from smokestacks before it is emitted and then send it by pipeline to a location where it would be pumped underground for long-term isolation.

EPA says this technology, known as carbon capture and storage, can be made ready for large-scale use. But the technology has not been tested at the required scale.  And it’s expensive.  The deadline for installing the technology — 2040 — is much too soon for an unproven technology.   Although there is potential large-scale underground storage in deep aquifers, no one knows if these can contain carbon for centuries without leaking. Carbon escaping from the underground would be deadly.

It seems that EPA wants to gamble on a risky regulation that could expose people to even greater safety harms — regardless of the costs and however minor the gains from U.S. decarbonization may turn out to be in practice.

The inconvenient truth is that the U.S. has only a small fraction of the world’s coal plants. China has more coal plants than the rest of the world combined. And despite its pledge to phase out the use of coal, China is continuing to build new coal plants to support its economic development. India also is expanding its coal fleet. Both China and India obtain around 60% of their electricity from coal. The Biden administration ought to keep another perspective in mind: For any global emissions reduction program to succeed, all nations must participate.

The challenge for America, then, is to be prudent in our use of energy resources while at the same time expanding our technological capabilities. Shutting down coal plants is not the way to proceed.

Before we hobble our economy and society with costly new regulations, we should ask ourselves whether the hoped-for benefits justify the cost to our economy and our daily life and whether there is a better alternative.

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Barry Butterfield
Barry Butterfield

Barry Butterfield is a civil engineer who worked in the public and private sector for over 40 years. He has done energy-related projects in Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa and Connecticut. He also worked on two of Nebraska’s more controversial projects, including the Central Interstate Compact Low-Level Radioactive Waste facility near Butte, Nebraska, and the Keystone XL pipeline. He has also done extensive environmental analysis on freight rail projects in Wyoming, Illinois, Texas and Kansas. He has published papers for the American Nuclear Society and Energy Research and Social Sciences, and is an emeritus member of the American Nuclear Society.