Nobody is likely to build more coal-burning power plants in the United States under strict emission limits proposed Friday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Kentucky coal and utility officials predicted.
That could further weaken demand for the coal of Eastern Kentucky, which has seen mines close and thousands of mining jobs disappear over the last few years. Coal counties in the mountains suffered official unemployment rates this summer between 11 and 18 percent.
"We in the industry truly believe this is a de facto ban on coal-fired power plants because we don't believe what they're asking for can be achieved in the marketplace at this point," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
To deal with air pollution and climate change, the EPA proposed a rule capping new coal-burning power plants at 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. New power plants that burn natural gas would be capped at 1,000 pounds if they are large and 1,100 pounds if they are small. Existing power plants would not be covered, although the EPA says emission limits will be proposed for them no later than June 1, 2014.
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If enacted, the rule would give another significant advantage to natural gas: It burns cleaner than coal and emits less carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in Earth's atmosphere. At present, natural gas also is cheaper than coal.
Kentucky's existing coal-burning power plants put an average of 1,950 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air per megawatt hour, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet. The state's best-performing coal plant goes only as low as 1,750 pounds.
The EPA suggests that new coal plants could reach the lower emission limits with carbon capture-and-storage technology. A new plant using this technology would capture carbon dioxide from the smokestack and inject it underground, either for storage or for some later industrial use.
Given the shift to "new-generation technologies," the EPA "does not anticipate this rule will have any impacts on the price of electricity, employment or labor markets or the U.S. economy," the agency wrote in its regulatory impact analysis.
However, carbon capture-and-storage technology has not yet proven to be commercially viable. Southern Co. is spending $4.7 billion to build a 582-megawatt coal plant with that technology in Kemper County, Miss., with a tentative opening date of next spring. There have been multiple delays and cost overruns, and the utility's ratepayers will see $2.9 billion added to their bills to recoup the company's expenses.
East Kentucky Power Cooperative, based in Winchester, has three coal-burning power plants and one that burns natural gas, spokesman Nick Comer said Friday. Under the proposed rule, any future plants that are built probably would burn natural gas, Comer said.
"This seems to put some pretty significant limitations on coal as a means to generate electricity," Comer said.
Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said that even before the EPA's proposal, utilities were turning away from conventional coal-burning plants. Other energy sources are cheaper and cleaner, and in coming years that's clearly going to be an advantage, FitzGerald said.
EPA studies identify power plants as the leading contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, ahead of cars and industry, and coal produces more carbon dioxide than any other fuel, he said.
"If you're trying to address the problem, it just makes sense to bring down the level of emissions from this sector," FitzGerald said.
What Kentucky politicians said about the EPA's proposed limit on carbon dioxide emissions:
"This is another attempt by the president to fulfill his long-term commitment to shut down our nation's coal mines. Sadly, it does not come as a shock given his failed attempt at getting Congress to pass a cap-and-tax bill designed to hike utility rates and bankrupt the coal industry."
— U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"I am deeply disappointed in today's EPA ruling. Yet again, President Obama's administration has taken direct aim at Kentucky jobs. ... Kentuckians deserve better than out-of-touch Washington regulation that further devastates an already ravaged region."
— Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate
"This war on coal is a war on our way of life, already costing our region more than 6,200 high-paying mining jobs. Today's latest assault is sadly no different. These overreaching, unworkable greenhouse gas regulations will cost thousands more jobs and increase energy costs for every household, small business and our seniors on fixed income."
— U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset
"The outcome of these ruinous regulations will be hundreds of thousands of Americans added to the unemployment lines and, in President Obama's own words, electricity costs that will 'necessarily skyrocket.'"
— U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington