Thursday, January 26, 2012

Coal Production, the EPA and Atmospheric Pollution

Some of the nation's coal-fired power plants were originally built as petroleum fired. Both types of electrical power plants were built as the nation grew and industrialized in the first half of the 20th century when coal and oil were the most abundant and cheapest available fuel. However, by 2009 coal burning power plants supplied 45% of the electricity produced, and petroleum supplied about 1%. After the end of World War II the use of coal for rail and water transportation and for heating declined. Coal demand grew starting growing again in the 1960’s with the post-War growth in American industry and increased use for electricity generation. In 1950, U.S. coal production was 508 million metric tons. In 2010, U.S. coal production was 1,050 million metric tons, but what appears as a smooth steady rise did not happen that way.

The use of coal rather than petroleum for electrical generations is a direct result of the 1973 Oil Embargo. In an attempt to regain energy independence after the gas rationing, and oil shortages of the Embargo, the nation turned to its vast coal reserves. Between 1973 and 1976, coal production increased by 14.4%. In 1978, the Power Plant and Industrial Fuel Use Act mandated conversion of most existing oil-burning power plants to coal or natural gas. Thirty years later our point of view has changed.

The coal burning power plants emit 48 tons of mercury annually as well as particulates and other pollutants. In addition, coal combustion adds a significant amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere per unit of heat energy, more than does the combustion of other fossil fuels. According to a combined report from the U.S. EPA and the Department of Energy, coal generates 2.1 pounds of CO2 per kWh while natural gas generates 1.3 pounds of CO2 per kWh. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, launched the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program in October 2009, requiring the reporting of carbon dioxide, CO2, data from large stationary emission sources, as well as suppliers of fuel that would emit GHGs if used. EPA intends to promulgate CO2 regulations in the coming year based on the data collected, but in the meantime has guidance on CO2 emissions permitting.

In the past year, EPA finalized two regulations that were specifically targeting coal fired power plants. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) regulates mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide. MATS was finalized on December 21. 2011. The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, CSAPR, which requires reductions of sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions in coal fired plants was made final in July but at the end of last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit granted a stay to the implementation of the CSAPR pending resolution of the legal challenges. CSAPR, if eventually implemented will reduce SO2 emissions by 73% from 2005 levels and NOx emissions by 54% at the approximately 1,000 coal fired electrical generation plants in the eastern half of the country. It should be clear that EPA’s goal is to reduce if not eliminate the use of coal for power generation.

The composition and total of the net summer generating capacity for electricity in the U. S. has changed in the past decade. Since 1999 the generating capacity for natural gas has more than doubled while the generating capacity for coal fired electrical generators has remained constant. In 2010 natural gas was used to produce 24% of U. S. electricity. Coal was used to product 45 % of electricity. However, the summer net generating capacity of natural gas now exceeds coal. With the tightening and expansion of regulations by the EPA under the Clean Air Act of coal powered generating plants for carbon emissions, mercury, arsenic, acid gases and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule the federal government looks likely to end electrical generation from coal as a fuel source. This will only be accelerated by the recent fall in natural gas prices.

In 2010, U.S. coal production was 1,050 million metric tons with 92.5% of the coal used to generate electricity. Without electrical generation there is little demand for coal. The EPA’s MATS and CSPAR regulation and the forthcoming greenhouse gas regulations will eliminate the economic feasibility of coal fired electrical generation plants and all but end coal mining in the United States (at least for this generation). However our nation requires power, and in the foreseeable future that is not going to change. Regulation can also be used to limit other sources of energy- the Keystone XL pipeline and Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking) bans. The cost of power is a key factor in determining the cost of production, and the cost of living. To a large extent we have exported manufacturing to China and other emerging economies. China’s use of coal for electricity generation was 1.29 billion metric tons last year, but their pollution control was weak.

The earth’s atmosphere is interconnected. That is accepted when it comes to carbon dioxide or the chemicals that erode the ozone layer, but it also applies to industrial pollutants. The EPA has estimated that just one-quarter of U.S. mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants are deposited within the contiguous U.S. The remainder enters the global cycle. Conversely, current estimates are that less than half of all mercury deposition within the United States comes from American sources. According to the Mount Bachelor Observatory, other Chinese exports include acid rain that falls in China, Korea, and Japan, and pollutants that enter the air stream including sulfates, NOx, black carbon, soot produced by cars, stoves, factories, and crop burning. It seems that EPA can reduce our economic growth without actually reducing the air pollution we experience.

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