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America Can Achieve Its Environmental and Economic Goals with Coal
The following opinion editorial is written by Tom Wolf, Executive Director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce's Energy Council.
Tom Wolf, Executive Director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce's Energy Council
When it comes to energy regulation, certain and achievable targets are essential. Yet, too often we are subjected to fuzzy math and wishful thinking that can end up with us over relying on fewer forms of energy rather than embracing a sensible, balanced national energy policy.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rulemaking on greenhouse gas emissions for new sources is a perfect example of this self-defeating approach. The regulation seems designed to pick energy winners and losers, setting a target for greenhouse gas reduction that most natural gas generators can accommodate with commercially available technology but coal generators cannot.
Of course, the EPA proposes a provision for utilities to average the greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, theoretically allowing them to build a new coal plant and retrofit it with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology when it becomes available. The trouble is that CCS technology is still under development. Electricity generation is a massive investment, designed to last for decades. What company will be able to get financing to build a plant on the hope that any technology – no matter how promising – will be available and affordable at a specific time in the future?
Prairie State Energy Campus is one of cleanest coal-fueled power plants ever built
Ironically, the EPA’s earlier approach of setting achievable targets and encouraging technology investment resulted in a great environmental success story. Since the first Clean Air Act became law in 1970, emissions from coal-fueled plants have declined nearly 90 percent, even as generation has tripled. And today’s ultra-efficient plants are building on this progress. Just outside of Marissa, Ill., the Prairie State Energy Campus has emissions that are one-fifth the U.S. average and carbon dioxide emissions up to 40 percent lower than the oldest units in the fleet. Prairie State also is an economic engine in Southern Illinois, creating 4,000 jobs at the peak of construction.
Regulation should encourage, not restrict, innovation. Sadly, this is not the case with the current spate of EPA rules. New greenhouse gas regulations will result in many companies abandoning coal research altogether. This leaves businesses and consumers with fewer energy choices and greater vulnerability to price shocks. In addition, cleaner coal technologies will be invented somewhere else.
I hesitate to try and quantify exact costs of any proposed rulemaking. If I have learned anything in my years in business, and particularly in the energy industry, it is this: Our future is almost impossible to predict. Who could have imagined that new natural gas finds could turn the United States into a potential natural gas exporter? Just a few years ago, we were faced with declining conventional gas fields and the very real possibility that we would be importing our gas from unstable nations like Venezuela. Who could have predicted that crude oil from North Dakota – 7,500 barrels per day in 2006 – would reach 500,000 barrels a day today?
We may not be able to fully anticipate the next breakthrough. But we can create regulations that ease the way.
Recently I toured Prairie State and spoke with the campus’ lead environmental engineer. I asked him how he felt about working on the environmental controls at the plant. He compared himself to a kid in a candy store. He was proud to be part of one of the cleanest coal-fueled power plants ever built. We need to make regulations that inspire more engineers and technicians and electricians to roll up their sleeves and find the next environmental innovation –not rules that inspire these men and women to throw up their hands and go home. America excels at innovation; there has never been a challenge we have not met. We can achieve our environmental and economic goals with coal. All it takes is policies that provide a road map for success, not a dead end.