This past Thursday, it seemed coal was on trial again in Seattle. About 250 people turned out, on a fiercely windy and rainy afternoon, for a meeting held by the U.S. EPA in the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building downtown. It was one of 11 “listening sessions” that the EPA has held around the country to gain public input on new rules for power plants and the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.
The environmental movement has been waiting a long time for such regulations: “We are here today 25 years after our nation's foremost climate scientists went before Congress and said, ‘We've got a big problem,’” K.C. Golden, of the local advocacy group Climate Solutions, said on Thursday. “I am here today to say it's not too late, but it sure as hell is not too early.”
In the backdrop is the Northwest's turbulent debate about the role of coal — the fuel that causes the most intensive greenhouse-gas pollution — in our economy. Will this region be the epicenter of coal exports — strip-mined from Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin and pushed out of our ports toward Asia? Or will we be known for leadership in green energy and a commitment to go coal-free, as Washington and Oregon retire their last remaining coal-fired power plants (TransAlta in Centralia, Wash. and Portland General Electric in Boardman, Ore.) in less than fifteen years?
Demand for coal has shrunk in the United States in recent years. But despite all the “war on coal” rhetoric spouted by Republicans in Congress, so far these new EPA regulations promise nothing that will make the coal market better or worse. The first set of rules, for new power plants, have no teeth. According to the EPA’s own analysis, they “will result in negligible CO2 emission changes.”
That’s in part because the expansion of the fracking industry across the country has made natural gas cheap, and it’s already unlikely that the industry will soon build many new coal-fired power plants in the United States.
The second set of rules, which will place restrictions on existing power plants, could have a greater impact on coal, but won't be released until next year. For now, the EPA is merely taking input. The plan is for the EPA to release a set of guidelines, under section 111 (d) of the Clean Air Act, but leave it to states to implement them. It’s anyone’s guess what those guidelines will look like or how effectively they'll be implemented.
“Our goal is to see substantial measurable reductions,” the agency said in an email.
Doug Howell of the Sierra Club believes that if the rules were substantial, they could push Washington power utilities to stop relying on coal-generated power, which they buy from the Colstrip power plant, east of Billings, Mont. That coal supplies 14 percent of the state’s energy mix, but contributes a wildly disproportionate amount — about 80 percent — of the sector’s carbon emissions.
The Sierra Club is leading a campaign to push Puget Sound Energy (PSE) to drop Colstrip from its energy mix. “We've done everything we can within the fenceline of this state. And now we need EPA to step up to the plate to ensure standards that will apply to Montana,” said Howell.
PSE’s current planning documents assume that the utility will continue relying on Colstrip, because, they say, the cheap power keeps consumer rates lower. Their 2013 plan claims that it already assumes future limits on carbon dioxide. But PSE Vice President Andrew Wappler said stringent regulations could still change the picture: “If a carbon regulation came in that greatly changed the economics of those plants, that would clearly have an impact.”
In other parts of the country, the EPA has faced strident criticism over the rules. At another Thursday hearing in Washington, D.C., pro-coal groups dressed down the EPA, calling the regulations “harmful” and insisting the agency should hold more meetings in coal-dependent states. But here in the other Washington, many of the people giving testimony at the Thursday meeting wanted to see coal gone from the state’s energy portfolio.
“The idea of the remaining useful life of a coal-fired power plant makes no sense to the next generation,” said Seattle resident Michael Foster. “The remaining useful life of a plant that is eliminating the remaining useful life on the planet doesn't add up.” He received enthusiastic applause from the attenders.
Seattle City Light spokesperson, Lynn Best, urged the EPA to “deliver meaningful emissions reductions.” “As a utility that is heavily dependent on hydro, we have watched the impacts of climate change on our facilities with growing alarm,” she said. “In the last 20 years, we have seen the flows coming into our Skagit project during the April to September period drop by 11 percent.”
Whether the regulations help the Northwest environmental movement achieve its goals on coal depends a great deal on how the agency fends off pressure from policymakers in coal-producing states. Already, two lawmakers — Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — have introduced legislation that would stymie the EPA, requiring Congressional approval for new rules.