After several years of taking a beating from the poor economy, new pollution rules and a flood of cheap natural gas, the coal industry was on the rebound this year as mining projects moved forward in the Western U.S. and demand for the fuel began to rise, especially in Asia.
But almost overnight, coal is back on the defensive, scrambling to stave off a dark future amid President Barack Obama’s renewed push to rein in climate change.
The proposal, with its emphasis on cuts in carbon- dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants, would put facilities such as the 2,100-megawatt Colstrip electricity plant in eastern Montana in regulators’ cross hairs. That has profound spin-off implications for the massive strip mines that dot the surrounding arid landscape of the Powder River Basin and provide the bulk of the nation’s coal.
Montana’s sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives bluntly declared that the administration had decided to “pick winners and losers” in the energy sector with its plan. “He wants to move toward shutting down the coal industry,” Republican Rep. Steve Daines said of the president.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency rejected claims that the administration’s plan would exclude coal. They pointed to billions of dollars being spent by the government on technologies to decrease emissions by capturing and storing carbon dioxide from coal plants.
Yet widespread application of those technologies is years away, and Obama made clear in announcing his proposal that he intends to halt the “limitless dumping of carbon pollution” from power plants. He directed the EPA to craft rules to make that happen.
The Colstrip plant, which dominates the skyline of a coal-centered town by the same name, burns about 10 million tons of coal a year from a nearby mine and provides power to customers as far away as Seattle.
According to the EPA, the plant churned out more than 15 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, the latest year for which data was available. That’s roughly equivalent to the emissions from about 3 million cars running for a year.
Among utilities elsewhere in the country, the trend away from coal has been well underway over the past several years. Rock-bottom natural-gas prices — coupled with huge costs to clean up mercury and other pollutants from burning coal — drove many utilities to simply switch fuels.