Future of Coal Power Under Fire


Coal-producing states that supply nearly half of the nation's electricity are feeling squeezed as efforts to combat global warming outpace technology needed to make the nation's most abundant fossil fuel burn more cleanly.

In 2007, proposals for 59 coal plants were scrapped in 24 states, either by state regulators concerned about the effects of carbon-dioxide emissions or by power companies worried about the future costs of pollution, according to data from the Sierra Club.

Now, governors and other officials from major mining states are intensifying calls to expand technologies to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from coal power, including a method that turns carbon dioxide into a synthetic natural gas, called gasification, or to store the emissions underground, through a process called sequestration.

"Whether you believe in global warming or not, the political and economic realities have changed, and Wyoming needs to adapt to those changes," said Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), after signing two bills to establish new rules governing sequestration in his state, which produces more than 38 percent of the nation's coal.

Seventeen states already provide financial incentives to encourage cleaner coal-burning technology. North Dakota has the only plant that gasifies coal and pumps the synthetic natural gas to pipelines that supply the eastern United States - and also captures some of the carbon-dioxide emissions.

The federal Department of Energy has helped build demonstration plants in Indiana and Florida that gasify coal to create electricity, and more than 30 proposed power plants would use similar technology, according to a February report from the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). Only three of them are in the final stages of planning or nearing construction, NETL reports.

Coal is now burned in more than 600 plants to generate 49 percent of the country's current electricity, with the largest amounts of that fuel consumed in the upper Great Lakes and Southeastern states, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. The National Mining Association (NMA) projects that the amount of coal mined this year will approach the 2006 record of 1.16 billion tons.

While coal is mined in 26 states, more than two-thirds of it comes from Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. West Virginia employs the most miners, more than 20,000 in 2006. Nearly 18,000 coal miners worked in Kentucky that year and more than 5,800 in Wyoming.

Although 150 new coal-fired power plants were proposed between 2000 and 2006, the bulk of those projects has been delayed or canceled, according to an October 2007 report by NETL. More than 36,000 megawatts of electricity was scheduled to come from new coal-fired power in 2007 - enough to power roughly 36 million homes, just 4,500 megawatts was actually produced, NETL found.

Carol Raulston, an NMA spokeswoman, points out that 28 new coal-fired power plants are under construction. But clean-coal technology is not likely to be widespread commercially for 15 years to 20 years, she said.

Coal is under fire for the amount of carbon dioxide the plants emit - the most prevalent greenhouse gas and widely accepted as a primary cause of global warming. Electric power generation from coal accounts for roughly 34 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.

State governments already are leading the movement to curb greenhouse gases, with 26 now requiring that a percentage of electricity come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. Those include five of the top 10 coal-producing states - Pennsylvania, Montana, Texas, Colorado and Illinois.

Nearly all of those 26 states also have signed on to three separate, regional cap-and-trade systems that will eventually require cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants and other industrial sources. Under those systems, coal-fired power plants would be given or have to buy credits for the carbon dioxide they produce and pay for additional credits if they do not meet reduction targets.

Now, some state regulators are taking more direct aim at coal. Last year, officials in Kansas and Washington became the first in the nation to reject proposals for new coal-fired power plants specifically because of concerns over climate change. Kansas and Washington are both involved in multi-state agreements to cap carbon-dioxide emissions. Washington also has passed a law to cut greenhouse gases in the state 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

"I believe it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing," said Roderick Bremby, secretary of the state Department of Health and Environment, in written comments explaining his decision.

The Kansas Legislature passed a bill March 6 to overrule the department's denial of the power plant and block similar decisions in the future. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) has promised to veto that legislation.

Florida regulators also turned down plans for coal-fired power plants last year as Gov. Charlie Crist (R) pushed for new environmental standards to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and require more renewable energy.

Pressure to cancel projects also has come from outside states where proposed power plants eventually were abandoned. Attorneys general from eight states urged Kansas regulators to turn away power plants, arguing that the global climate change requires action at the state and local levels.

The attorneys general hail from environmental trend-setter California, which in 2006 passed the nation's first statewide law capping carbon-dioxide emissions, as well as Wisconsin, which also is one of the six Midwestern states cooperating with Kansas to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

Attorneys general from Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont also opposed the Kansas power plants. They are all part of an eastern regional initiative to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. Several of the same officials have sent letters to environmental or energy regulators in Ohio and South Carolina to protest other coal-fired power plants.

In addition, North Carolina's Lt. Gov. Beverly Purdue (D) is calling for a moratorium on new coal-fired power in her state. And former Utah Gov. Olene Walker (R) is helping to protest a proposed power plant just over her state's southwest border with Nevada.

Utility companies also have pulled the plug on many of their own plans because of public backlash and the potential costs of carbon dioxide regulations under a cap-and-trade system - the same reason that banks are setting tougher new standards for financing new power plants.

After consulting with both power companies and environmentalists, international financial institutions Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley announced Feb. 4 they would begin weighing the economic and environmental risks of underwriting electric-power projects. Bank of America made a similar announcement the following week.

"Conventional coal facilities are already facing intensive scrutiny. We think the serious money is increasingly going to be on clean, efficient solutions," Dale Bryk, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council said of the new standards.

Industry advocates and politicians in large mining states acknowledge that environmental concerns have made it tougher to build new power plants. But coal's abundance and low cost ensure it will be needed to meet the nation's growing demand for electricity, they argue.

"It is the coal that is fueling the base load of this nation - 49 percent. With that being said, how do we all work on a national policy that continues to clean up the emissions, clean up the metals - everything that we know that we need to do, and we want to do?," West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) said.

Manchin added that coal states are willing to be part of the solution to global warming, but they will need significant help from the federal government. Besides money for research and development, the government can provide loan guarantees to help ensure that gasification projects attract enough financing from investors.

Although President Bush has repeatedly pronounced his support for innovations in coal power, the federal Department of Energy reported in January that it was canceling a partnership with industry to build a $1.8 billion demonstration project in Illinois to develop sequestration and gasification technologies.


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