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Big Coal's Big Problems

The economic prospects of domestic coal-fired power are bleak and getting bleaker

The American Electric Power coal burning plant in Conesville, Ohio.
Michael Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
February 8, 2013 2:00 PM ET

You wouldn't have guessed it from all the theatrics of the 2012 election – like when Mitt Romney, who once stood in front of a coal-fired power plant and announced, "That plant kills people," turned around and campaigned on a promise to revive the coal industry – but the days of Big Coal's power have been numbered for a while now. And the prognosis may be about to get worse. 

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule limiting how much carbon dioxide a new power plant can emit per megawatt of electricity it produces. Plants powered by the sun, wind, nuclear and natural gas are capable of operating under the new limit – but not those powered by coal.

The rule was heralded as marking the end of new coal power in the U.S., though in fact cheap natural gas, the rising cost of producing coal, the availability of ever-cheaper renewable power, strong opposition to coal and the possibility of a carbon price had already kept utilities from planning new coal plants (or prompted them to cancel them) even before the rule was issued.

But no new coal plants isn't the same as no coal plants. New EPA data out this week shows that, though power plant emissions are dropping, coal-fired plants are still the largest single source of carbon emissions in the U.S. If President Obama is to follow up on his inaugural promise – "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations" – that has to mean addressing those existing plants.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that the president will announce his plans to tackle the emissions of existing power plants in his upcoming State of the Union address. It's not clear yet what form those plans will take, though lobbyists for coal-burning utilities are already clamoring for a say in what new rules will look like. But they won't be the only new stresses on the already fragile economics of coal power.

The EPA is also expected to issue a new rule later this year setting standards for how utilities deal with coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal that is often stored in giant, uncovered and unlined ponds. The rule has been expected since 2008, when the earthen wall restraining a 40-acre coal ash slurry pond in eastern Tennessee failed, inundating two rivers and a nearby town with a billion gallons of slurry. According to a 2010 EPA study, the cost of compliance with new standards could exceed $20 billion.

These are the sorts of shocks that the already struggling coal industry isn't ready to handle. Opponents have called such regulation a "war on coal," but the simple truth is that the environmental realities of burning coal are finally catching up to the industry. U.S. coal just doesn't make economic sense.

Coal's decline does bring some negative side effects. Coal is too often replaced not with renewable power but with natural gas, which has its own serious problems, including the water pollution associated with the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the fact that it's a major greenhouse gas emitter in its own right. And, as domestic demand dwindles, coal companies are increasingly looking to export coal to markets in Asia, where demand is still high.

Those upcoming fights notwithstanding, the urgency of the climate crisis means that bad news for coal is good news for the rest of us.

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