Tom FitzGerald: Beshear wrong about 'war on coal'

June 1, 2011 

I'm writing in response to Gov. Steve Beshear's characterization of the implementation of sulfur dioxide, particulate and mercury pollution standards of the federal Clean Air Act as being part of a "war on coal."

The national ambient air quality standards are adopted and revised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act after rigorous independent scientific review, in order to satisfy Congress's directive that the standards protect public health "with an adequate margin of safety."

These standards apply to all major sources of those pollutants, not just coal-fired power plants. The impact on coal-fired units is greater because they are a significant source of these pollutants, including two-thirds of sulfur emissions nationwide.

The rising costs of coal-fired electricity in part reflect the internalization of costs that have been historically paid by the most vulnerable of Kentucky's citizens in premature death, respiratory and pulmonary disease and other exposure-related health problems. For more information on the consequences of breathing these pollutants, visit www.epa.gov/air/airpollutants.html.

The Beshear administration should bear in mind that there is no right, under federal or state law, for a utility to use the public's air to disperse and dispose of wastes from energy production — only a limited privilege to emit under standards designed to prevent respiratory and other illness and premature deaths. If the administration believes that the health science does not support the standards, it is free to challenge the underlying science.

The proposed LGE/KU environmental surcharge filing that was the subject of the May 26 news article and the governor's May 25 press release, responds to changes in the sulfur dioxide and particulate standards that are mandated to be reviewed every five years, to maintain currency with health science.

The current sulfur dioxide standards were proposed and finalized under the Obama administration; the most recent particulate standard, by the Bush administration (which could hardly be accused of a war on coal). The mercury rule has not been finalized.

With more than 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity coming from fossil fuels, and the majority of that from coal, the commonwealth is particularly vulnerable to cost increases associated with reducing mercury, sulfur and particulate pollution to improve air quality and protect public health.

The administration is properly concerned, as are we all, about the effect of rising electricity costs on the public and our energy-intensive manufacturers.

The best hedge against these rising costs, particularly for Kentucky's most vulnerable ratepayers, is a much more aggressive campaign to weatherize owner-occupied and rental properties; to improve energy efficiency at home and in the workplace; to assist in capitalizing the cost of these home improvements for low, fixed, and moderate-income Kentuckians; and to diversify our energy portfolio with other energy sources that have a lower pollution footprint.

Those actions would moderate rising utility rates by lowering electricity consumption while stimulating local economies and creating job opportunities in the construction and other sectors.

Tom FitzGerald is director of the Kentucky Resources Council.

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