Unexpected response on fossil fuel

Posted 5/8/24

The EPA recently released new rules regarding power plant emissions. The response from the fossil fuel industry was as expected: ranging from promises to block the new regulations in court to calling …

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Unexpected response on fossil fuel


The EPA recently released new rules regarding power plant emissions. The response from the fossil fuel industry was as expected: ranging from promises to block the new regulations in court to calling the new rules un-American. They rolled out the usual talking points: energy prices will skyrocket, and we won’t have enough reliable energy if we implement the new rules. There might even be some truth in what they’re saying, at least in the short term, but the alternative is so much worse. Our reliance on coal is killing us.

There is, of course, the well-documented impact that coal-fired power plants have had on global temperatures and the existential threat posed by climate change, but burning coal poses real dangers in the here and now as well. Coal ash contains arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, as well as other toxins. The new EPA rules are aimed at toxic waste and the threat that neurotoxins like mercury pose to developing fetuses. There’s a certain amount of irony that the same people who consistently side with the coal industry are also the ones who claim to be “pro-life” and say that they want to protect the unborn. One of the easiest ways to protect the unborn would be to ensure that toxins like mercury can’t seep out of the storage facilities and contaminate our groundwater and fisheries. One of the rules released closes the “lignite loophole” which allowed plants burning lignite, which is the lowest grade of coal, to emit more than three times as much mercury pollution as other coal plants.

The rules would force coal-fired power plants to capture their smokestack emissions or close down. Coal-fired plants that plan on staying open past 2039 would have to cut or capture 90% of their carbon pollution by 2032. Other rules released are aimed at reducing wastewater pollutants from coal-fired power plants and safely managing coal ash in storage ponds. The regulations mark another step taken by the Biden administration to address climate change, whose goal it is to eliminate carbon pollution from the energy sector by 2035. Fossil fuel-fired power plants are the second-largest contributor to climate change in the nation.

The regulations mark the first time that the federal government has restricted carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired plants. The rules also address future coal and gas-fired plants, forcing them to control up to 90% of their carbon pollution. According to EPA estimates, the new rules will prevent 1.38 billion metric tons of carbon pollution through 2047. That’s the equivalent of the annual emissions from 328 million cars.

Conservatives consistently talk about rolling back government regulations on industry and letting the “invisible hand” of the market make decisions. But it’s clear in this case, and many others, that without government regulation, the industry will simply choose profits over people. Here, unless the government forces the hands of coal-fired power plants, they will continue business as usual, something that we can’t afford from a health standpoint or a climate standpoint.

Coal provided about 16% of America’s energy last year, well down from the 45% it provided in 2010. Natural gas provides 43% of U.S. energy with the other 41% coming from nuclear, wind, solar, and hydropower. The EPA rules originally also addressed the carbon pollution created by natural gas plants, but those have been delayed.

Transitioning to clean energy has had its ups and downs, including the economic costs. But burning fossil fuels has its economic costs as well, including higher hospital bills due to things like increased rates of asthma and premature deaths from exposure to toxins in the air and water as well as costs created by missed days from school and work due to increased respiratory illnesses. When laid out, there’s no question that cheap energy now is not worth a shorter lifespan and unhealthier life for those that we love. Nor can it be worth sacrificing the future for our children and our grandchildren. Rather than figuring out how to block the latest rules, America’s energy industry should start putting their resources towards figuring out how to make the transition to clean energy as easy as possible for American consumers.