A Win for Clean Air in the Southeast—and a Blow to Coal

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Peter Andrews/Reuters

Yesterday Tom Fanning, the CEO of the majority coal-powered utility Southern Company, made a few headlines when he told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a speech that the Obama administration has “virtually declared war on coal,” continuing:

The existing coal industry is under attack by some in America. Decisions are being made today that will limit our ability long-term to use coal… and, therefore, negatively impact the nation’s economic well-being.

Whether you think a “war on coal” is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your feelings about the number one source of electricity in the U.S.—I’m on the James Hansen side myself—there’s no doubt that environmental regulations and concern over public health will continue to squeeze the coal industry. And the Obama Administration really is leading the way—today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a landmark deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to resolve alleged Clean Air Act violations at 11 of the company’s coal-fired power plants in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee. As a result, TVA will phase out 18 units at older, coal-fired power plants and install updated pollution controls on three dozen additional units. The agreement—which will cost TVA an estimated $3 billion to $5 billion in new investments—will permanently retire 2,700-MW of coal power, and reduce TVA’s nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 69% and 67% from 2008 levels. The EPA estimates that the changes will prevent approximately 1,200 to 3,000 premature deaths, 2,000 heart attacks and 21,000 asthma attacks each year, resulting in $27 billion in annual health benefits.

If there is a war on coal, environmental forces may have just won the Battle of Midway. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson—who has come under intense pressure from conservatives in Congress—sounded a note of triumph when she spoke to reporters this afternoon:

Today I am announcing a historic Clean Air Act agreement with TVA that will protect the health of millions of Americans, so that the people of the eastern U.S. will have cleaner air.

The deal—which comes after more than 11 years of pressure from environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Southeastern states and the EPA—will also require TVA to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on clean energy projects and energy efficiency, along with money to the National Park Service and National Forest Service to improve and protect lands that have been impacted by TVA’s coal plants. Don Barger, the senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement:

For decades, the Smoky Mountains has suffered from a slow motion crisis. Air pollution from TVA’s coal-fired power plants has degraded scenic vistas, damaged plant species, and impaired human health. Today’s settlement halts that trend and sends us in the right direction.

What’s less clear is exactly what that coal power will be replaced with—although with the right energy efficiency measures, TVA may not need to add a great deal of capacity to replace its retiring coal plants. (Unexpected fact: Americans actually use less energy per capita today than they did in 1980, although overall energy use is up because of population growth.) Natural gas—which burns cleaner than coal and, thanks in part to new shale deposits, is at unusually low prices—is likely to take up part of the slack as well, perhaps adding to the 11 gas-fired plants TVA already runs. (The climate advantages of such a shift to gas, however, are less clear-cut.)

But there’s no getting around the fact that the TVA deal represent a real blow to coal—and if the EPA gets its way, it may not be the last. The agency is set to push tighter regulations under the Clean Air Act on traditional pollutants—including the first-ever restrictions on mercury emissions—which will likely force utilities to either retire old coal plants or spend big money to install pollution control systems, as TVA has done. But cleaning the air won’t be free, and critics are already complaining about the cost of the TVA upgrades, which the company says will result in the loss of 300 to 400 jobs. Republican Representative John Duncan of Tennessee blasted the settlement in a statement:

I am disappointed that TVA caved in to these demands. This settlement will drive up utility bills for people in Tennessee and the surrounding states and hurt poor and lower-income people the most. I assume this deal came about because the money is not coming out of the pockets of the elitists who reached it.

House Republicans are already set to roll out legislation that would stall EPA rules to curb pollutants from power plants, industrial boilers and cement plants, which would follow-up failed attempts to curtail the EPA’s power to regulate carbon. Greens are responding. Margie Alt, the executive director of Environment America, told reporters this morning:

Big Oil and other polluters will continue to block the Clean Air Act from being updated with common sense measures that would attack mercury, smog and other pollutants. But access to clean air is a fundamental right that Americans have.

Indeed, while climate regulations remain controversial—in Congress and with much of the American people—there’s solid public support for clean air when it’s couched in terms of public health. That doesn’t leave a lot of space for coal plants. As Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. tweeted, the plants TVA is closing bought 8.2 million tons of coal in 2010—equal to the amount produced by four large West Virginia surface mines. Jackson told reporters today that “we don’t have anything against coal, but we have to reduce the pollution that comes from coal.” That may not quite be a declaration of war, but don’t expect the industry to take it laying down.

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