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An update on Coal’s Decline

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Whatever you want to call the coalition of folks working to get our country off of coal–committed activists, radical environmentalists, or just smart people worried about the future–these folks have been working hard, for years, to end our reliance on coal powered electricity generation.

The country has of course benefited from our coal development. But knowing what we know, the great problem of epistemology, it is irresponsible to continue burning coal: it is toxic to our planet’s air, water, and the health of everything that relies on air and water.

So how are these efforts going? Recently, the retirement of two Chicago coal-fired plants was announced, a major win in a decades long fight. This victory has prompted a bit of self-evaluation in the crusade to get our electricity freed from coal.

Clean Technica has an update on how the movement is coming.

A confluence of factors is making it very difficult for owners of coal plants — particularly old coal plants — to compete. A combination of high domestic coal prices, low natural gas prices, new air quality regulations, coordinated activist pressure, and cost-competitive renewables are making coal an increasingly bad choice for many power plant operators. Along with the 106 announced closures, 166 new plants have been defeated since 2002.

So just how much of an impact have these factors had on coal closures? Bruce Nilles, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign sent along these numbers:


  • 106 coal plants, 319 units
  • 42,895 MW (13% of fleet)
  • 150 million MWh (8% of fleet)
  • 162 million tons/year of CO2 (9% of fleet)
  • 921,417 tons/year of SO2 (16% of fleet)
  • Average age: 55 years old
  • (For plants with available data – Data from Clean Air Task Force): 2,042 pre-mature deaths, 3,229 heart attacks and 33,053 asthma attacks prevented each year (about 15% of total health impacts from fleet).  All together these plants retiring will save about $15.6 billion in health care costs.

This is no way to imply that the effort on behalf of climate change is winning. As producers are moving away from coal in some parts of the country, plans for new coal plants (“clean coal”) are progressing. And much of this generation is being replaced with natural gas, which has its own questions.

But it is important to take a step back from time to time and acknowledge that despite what the big political stories of the day might be, progress is being made.


Written by Christopher ZF

March 7, 2012 at 10:46

EPA Maps nation’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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Maps are always awesome. And the EPA has unveiled a new one that is very interesting. It is an interactive map that providing emissions data from across the nation.*

*It is not actually total. The data is self-reported, and thus not comprehensive. But still fascinating.

Look up your house, find the nearest power plant, and see what its CO2 output is. Below is my neighborhood on the West side. The three plants here are our local emitters, but not too bad: the High Bridge Natural Gas plant, and the 2 dot represents St. Paul District Energy and the St. Paul Cogeneration plant.

Know where your local energy comes from? Know how many GHGs they are emitting? Live near one of the top 10 emitters? Check it out. It’s quite a fascinating tool.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 12, 2012 at 09:21

EPA scores a big one: The Mercury and Air Toxics Rule

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I spend a lot of time reading about environmental legislation and policy-making. A lot of time. And often, that time is spent closer to despair than joy, seeing how big the task ahead of humanity is, and how easily that task is derailed by something as trivial as politics. So we should celebrate our success.

Thus, Congrats to the Lisa Jackson and the EPA on finalizing the Mercury and Air Toxics emissions rule for coal plants. There might be money to be spent as a result, but literally thousands of lives will be saved because of this rule. Billions of dollars will be saved in medical costs, and the quality of life will be better for millions and millions of people alive today and yet to be born. It is a real accomplishment for our and the planet’s future.

See David Roberts for a nice piece on the new rule.

This one is a Big Deal. It’s worth lifting our heads out of the news cycle and taking a moment to appreciate that history is being made. Finally controlling mercury and toxics will be an advance on par with getting lead out of gasoline. It will save save tens of thousands of lives every year and prevent birth defects, learning disabilities, and respiratory diseases. It will make America a more decent, just, and humane place to live.

Written by Christopher ZF

December 22, 2011 at 14:45

Rand Paul, Senator and no fan of polar bears

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Conservative Firebrand and US Senator Rand Paul doesn’t think climate change is a big deal. And he is sick and tired of the EPA trying to protect humans and animals from pollution and the dangers of a warming climate. Sick and tired.

Today, the US Senate held a vote brought to the floor by Rand Paul, using the the Congressional Review Act. The purpose was to overrule the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. TRC has discussed this vote previously.

Well, the vote failed to pass in the Senate, 41-56. The move to repeal the regulation gained the support of 2 Democrats, while 6 Republicans voted against the measure. It wasn’t actually going to pass, despite the reporting of some optimistic Conservatives, who, like Paul, saw the vote as a chance to embarrass Democrats so badly that they couldn’t possibly uphold EPA regulation in the face of a recession, which, to say the least, just shows how myopic and tone-deaf Rand Paul’s political world is.

It’s worth reading how Paul addresses the issue. Some of what Paul cites is true, which he then uses to support blatantly false statements. This is the kind of thing that makes for a popular, and dangerous, politician. Here’s Paul:

“To have clean air and jobs, we must have balance,” Paul argued, contending that the EPA is wrong when it says 34,000 people will die prematurely every year if the cross-state air pollution rule does not go into effect, and that statistics show the air has already gotten much cleaner over the years.
And he slammed environmental advocates for ignoring such improvements.
“If you listen to the hysterics, you would think otherwise,” Paul said. “You would think that the Statue of Liberty will shortly be under water and the polar bears are all drowning, and that we’re dying from pollution. It’s absolutely and utterly untrue.”
“All of the statistics from the government — and these are statistics from the EPA — all of the statistics from the EPA show declining pollution,” he said...“I’m afraid what’s happened is we’ve opened up the White House and this administration to environmental extremists — the kind of people who say, ‘Well, the polar bears are drowning.’ “

Two quick notes to Paul.

  1.  Many many people are dying from pollution. I would not pretend otherwise.
  2. The claim “we’ve opened up the White House and this administration to environmental extremists” is so off the mark that it is almost adorable. The Obama Administration is much more inclined towards environmental concerns than, say, the Bush Administration. But that doesn’t take much. They are no extremists.

Written by Christopher ZF

November 10, 2011 at 13:18

CO2 emissions are going up. Fast. And Rand Paul wants to keep it that way.

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Here are two trends that should really, actually worry people who are concerned about life, the future, the planet, business growth, economic growth, global equity, health and public safety, etc.

First, the headline from Yahoo News reporting on the DoE Co2 report: Biggest Jump ever seen in global warming gasses. It begins:

The global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated, a sign of how feeble the world’s efforts are at slowing man-made global warming…The new figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago.

Higher than the worst case scenario.

Meanwhile. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is using a rule known as the Congressional Review Act which allows congress to  bypass leadership to overturn regulations with an up or down vote, and does not allow a filibuster. The Paul move would throw out the EPA regulation created under the authority of the Clean Air Act known as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, finalized in July of this year, essentially halting the only steps that the US Government has been able to take this year towards cleaner air. Whether this will pass or not remains to be seen, but it will be close.

As of today, the Clean Air Act is pretty much the only tool that the United States Government has to address climate change. And the Cross-State Rule has been about the only rule that EPA has made that has not been completely delayed (see CO2 Rule, Fracking Rule, Air Toxics, you get the point). Congress most certainly will do nothing (NOTHING) to address climate change–even when a majority of congress wants to, it doesn’t happen. But the EPA has the right and obligation to regulate US industry in order to keep our air clean. And this means taking action on climate change and CO2–as the Supreme Court made clear. But allowing the Clean Air Act  and EPA to help requires ‘very serious people’ to step outside of one’s stubbornness to engage in even an elementary overview of the science, and the danger. Which is not likely.

The DoE story reminds those of us who do care: We’re losing the battle against climate change. Big time. And Rand Paul, and his friends, are helping to ensure that we do.

Written by Christopher ZF

November 4, 2011 at 10:19

The EPA is doing the EPA’s job: upsetting polluters

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The EPA has been pushed around a lot lately. The Environmental Protection Agency has become the favorite punching bag of the Right, and to many on the Left; an easy target for everything that is wrong with the US government. If regulation is the enemy of business, then the EPA epitomizes the enemy. The only business EPA has (ideally) is environmental regulation based on science. What more evil characterization could there be?

And now, they are up to their old tricks. States and companies are in a tizzy from sea to shining sea because the EPA wants to increase protections of air and water. Folks can call such burdens whatever they want, job-killing, too expensive, over-burdensome, driving business out of the country; businesses have entire departments where creative minds come up with colorful language to describe why the EPA should not increase protections of our air and water.

This is extreme push back against the EPA, but it’s certainly nothing new. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the US passed landmark environmental legislation, created the EPA and set about to monitor and protect the natural resources of our country. Since then, we’ve done everything possible to reverse it. Weakened our oversight, allowed violators to skirt the rules or issued penalties far to soft to affect change. Those were the good times. During the bad times, the EPA ignored the science, or used the science only to have its reports ignored or changed. In government, as in business, the US loves to hate the EPA.

To hear industry tell it, everyone, everywhere opposes the EPA’s upcoming regulatory rules. In the energy industry the next few years are being referred to as the “train-wreck.” There’s even a slide making the rounds of every energy company presentation to illustrate just how many pollutants EPA plans to regulate. It is called the train-wreck slide. The regulations of the train-wreck are coming down the tracks, and the costs are going to be significant. To polluters. Which is the point. And so the polluters are suing, and delaying, and rallying the elected officials whose pockets they fill with cash to get to DC and stop it. They are doing everything that can be done to continue business as usual. A reminder of business as usual: burning lots and lots of coal, releasing coal ash and mercury and CO2 and SOX and NOX and PM and OZONE and methane in amounts that are almost impossible to fathom, causing human illness and death, driving species extinction at a rate that should shock everyone, and bringing future injury to the planet that cannot be predicted other than to say, it will be bad. This is what our energy companies are fighting to protect.

Often it is asked what the alternatives are. Coal may be dirty, but the lights need to go on, and coal is cheap and reliable electricity. To stop burning coal is to send the US back in time to an age of fewer comforts and more problems. This is, frankly, ridiculous. The EPA is continuing the important task of transitioning the US energy and electricity industry away from dirty, polluting, dangerous fuels. It is not an easy or painless process. But they are not shutting down every coal plant in the next few years. They are not shutting down any coal plants. The owners of coal plants will be shutting them down, if they don’t want to invest in the technology to clean them up. That’s a business decision, and one that acknowledges that there are alternative to coal ready to serve the needs of the US. To say otherwise is simply to ignore reality.

In the US, we burn a lot of coal, but we do not need to. The US will probably continue to burn coal for generations, but it does not have to be that way. People in every single community of the United States will live healthier lives if we burn less coal. That is a fact.  And it is possible to burn less coal. In order to do so we have to place a higher value on the things that are actually important.

The dirty polluters are upset about the upcoming air and water quality standards of the nation’s Environmental Protection Agency. Clearly the EPA is doing its job.

Written by Christopher ZF

October 11, 2011 at 12:57

Protecting EPA’s Regulatory Authority

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Relative to: the GOP plan to strip EPA of the power to regulate greenhouse gases.

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. This authority went into effect at the beginning of 2011, when EPA began regulating oil refineries, power plants and other major GHG emitters. Not surprisingly, such regulation is unpopular.

Politico today writes about the closed-door, invitation-only meetings being held to undo EPA’s authority.  According to the piece, GOP officials, industry officials, and energy lobbyists are strategizing about how to undo all EPA authority over GHG regulation. Some of the options: delay the EPA’s ability to curb emissions for two years (Sen. Rockefeller); strip the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions (Con. Upton);  and the motherload, restrict all federal agencies ability to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and NEPA, including removing states’ rights to regulate industry, and removing “public nuisance litigation related to climate change” (Sen. Barrasso-Wyoming).

In the face of these legislative “solutions” to climate change regulation, one must hope that the Obama Administration will veto, veto, veto. There are democrats who will support these measures (Rockefeller, for example), as well as continue to make climate change legislation impossible.  The arguments against EPA cite economics and jobs and the current recession, but leaves unmentioned the sacrosanct nature of protecting the industries which are making the planet unlivable. In essence, the arguments ignore science and reason, and believe only that the status quo should be maintained.

Any argument to the contrary is simply not given an invitation to the meeting. The idea that regulation of GHGs honestly improves the future well-being of literally everyone gets no mention, because it is easy to say that science is wrong and climate change is false. The notion that a new infrastructure–transportation, energy, broadband, etc– for a new century is required, the old one is literally crumbling,  and that such development provides much needed jobs is disregarded  as government expansion and socialism, ignoring the fact that our country is built on these government initiatives in the first place.

The United States is ten years, at least, overdue in passing serious climate change legislation. Now, in 2011, with no prospect of congress being able to take the kind of  action needed, all we have left is the regulatory authority granted the EPA by our courts. There is a “too late” point on this issue. It may have already passed, but if it hasn’t, we need to maintain the only oversight we have for an industry that, even with regulation, largely operates on its own whims. The United States needs to bring climate change back into the conversation, and recognize that our current economic situation is not a reason to avoid necessary change but to embrace it.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 20, 2011 at 11:38