As we embark on the latest chapter in the feud between coal and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it might be worthwhile to reflect on the impact the Clean Air Act has had on environmental quality in Kentucky since its implementation in 1970.
In a period where we have measured a near doubling of energy generation from coal combustion (in gigawatt hours or BTUs) we have also witnessed a substantial decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.
In response to concerns over acid rain, National Ambient Air Quality Standards were established by EPA to drastically reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions from power plants. Since 1980, we have seen a greater than 70 percent reduction in emissions of SO2 and NOx in Kentucky.
At Lilly Cornett woods, in Letcher County, the National Atmospheric Deposition Program has recorded a similar reduction in the amount of sulfur and nitrogen in rainwater since 1984.
At Robinson Forest, in Breathitt County, we have observed a greater than 50 percent decrease in sulfur concentration since the early 1970s in streams that were unaffected by coal mining.
Recently, a study in West Virginia has shown that sulfur in the wood of some red cedar trees has changed since 1980 in response to improved atmospheric conditions.
Preliminary results from a study we are conducting in the Daniel Boone National Forest also suggests that even plant-available soil water has lower levels of sulfur today than those observed in the mid-1990s.
This data would suggest that the law is working. It also suggests that the Kentucky coal and power industries did what was needed to comply with clean-air standards through changes in coal mining practices (mining more low sulfur coal) and through implementation of new pollution control technologies such as scrubbers and catalytic reduction systems.
New EPA air-quality standards aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions are often cited as a catalyst for the demise of the coal industry in Kentucky and for the loss of jobs and economic opportunities. Looking backward, enactment of the CAA didn't affect coal production in Kentucky and it sparked new economic growth through research and development of greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies.
Likewise, research and development of new carbon capture and storage technologies have already begun in Kentucky and will likely grow in the future.
The surface coal mines themselves offer potential solutions for offsetting carbon dioxide emissions via injection of carbon dioxide terrestrial sequestration in newly planted forests.
It is clear that our coal and power industries have adapted to clean-air regulations and will likely do so again in the future. Although new greenhouse gas emission regulations may result in a change in the way power is produced in Kentucky, the requirements will ultimately result in an improvement in the quality of the air we breathe. This should result in an improvement in the quality of life in Kentucky.
At issue: Nov. 3 commentary by Mike Duncan of American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, "EPA refuses to hear the truth about coal"
Chris Barton is University of Kentucky professor of forest hydrology and watershed management.