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Is There Still a Case for Coal?

issue brief

Is There Still a Case for Coal?

Robert Bryce May 10, 2012
Energy & EnvironmentOther

On March 27, the EPA proposed what it calls the first “Clean Air Act standard for carbon pollution for new power plants.”[1] The proposal, if enacted, will effectively outlaw the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States. It is one of a myriad of rules leading to what some have called the “regulatory death” of domestic coal-fired electricity production. Shortly after the EPA announcement, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said the move shows that the EPA is engaged “in a war on coal.”

There’s no denying that coal has earned its reputation as a relatively dirty fuel. Generating electricity by burning coal results in higher levels of carbon emissions than does burning oil or natural gas. But the EPA should not prohibit the use of coal based on its carbon dioxide emissions. Doing so ignores modern advances in plant design and construction that have steadily improved air quality. But more to the point, prohibiting coal will increase the cost of producing electricity—a cost which will ultimately be paid by consumers—while doing almost nothing to reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions.

Despite its drawbacks, coal remains a cheap, easily accessed, and abundant domestic fuel source. In other words, there is still a case for coal.

The EPA should revisit its proposed ban on new coal-fired power plants. It is bad policy for several reasons:

The anti-coal regulatory regime reduces access to a vital source of energy.

Electricity producers need to retain a balanced fuel mix. Prohibiting a specific fuel has been tried in the past by regulators.

The newest coal plants are clean by traditional EPA measures.

Prohibiting construction of new coal-fired generation units won’t do anything to achieve the EPA’s stated purpose of reducing global carbon dioxide emissions.