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A Climatic Bonanza A Climatic Bonanza

A Climatic Bonanza

by Ben Jervey
November 21, 2008

EPA self-corrects, Big Coal trembles

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency dropped a legal bombshell on Big Coal last week in the unlikely form of a ruling from its Appeals Board. The decision (pdf), which requires that carbon dioxide be recognized as a pollutant in the EPA's permitting process, will effectively halt the planned construction of at least dozens of new coal plants around the country.A little background:  The Utah-based Deseret Power Electric Cooperative wanted to expand the capacity of its coal-fired, 400-megawatt Bonanza Power Plant in the small town of Vernal by more than 25 percent, generating another 110 MW per day.  The EPA-which for the past eight years has been a "protection agency" in name only-issued the necessary permits in July of last year."Not so fast," said the Sierra Club, demanding this past May that the Agency's Appeals Board (an independent court operating within the EPA) overturn the permits. It's argument hinged on the landmark 2007 Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA, which ruled that CO2 be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. For any pollutant covered under the Act, you see, a permit-seeker must prove that they're using so-called "best available control technology" (BACT) to lessen any harmful emissions. Thus, a new coal plant must apply BACT to the release of CO2; the proposed Bonanza expansion, however, had no plans for any sort of emissions control.It's a commonly held belief, in climate circles, that new coal plants-which already emit 30 percent of our national greenhouse gas pollution--are the most urgent and severe threat to our mounting climate crisis.  Joanne Spalding, the Sierra Club attorney who argued the case, said in a statement that the Appeals Board "rejected every Bush Administration excuse for failing to regulate the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States."So what will the impact of this decision be on future coal projects?The answer ultimately lies in what, exactly, is the "best available control technology" for cutting down on CO2 emissions. That's still unclear, and surely won't be settled until the new EPA administration is making the call. All indications-not the least of which being the President-Elect's recent firm and urgent comments about climate change-are that an EPA seeded by Obama would be a strict regulator.  Carbon capture and storage, the process of gasifying carbon dioxide and storing it somewhere so it can't float up into the atmosphere, is certainly "available," but is not at all cheap.Thus, the Board's decision will certainly put the brakes on the 30 or so proposed plants with permits pending. Further, coal suddenly doesn't seem like such a smart bet for investors. According Dave Roberts of Grist, "Nobody's going to invest a red dime in new coal for probably the next ten years, at least." Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's National Coal Campaign, elaborates: "Instead of pouring good money after bad trying to fix old coal technology, investors should be looking to wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies that are going to power the economy, create jobs, and help the climate recover."As more and more of the true costs of coal are recognized and internalized, expect to see fewer and fewer dollars devoted to old, dirty energy. In the long track of fossil fuel's demise, the Bonanza case will likely stand out as a watershed moment.(Photo from Flickr user davipt. © Bruno & Lígia Rodrigues. June 2006.)
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