Monday numbers: Debunking the EPA’s clean coal balderdash

By: - December 10, 2018 5:00 am

Global carbon dioxide emissions are predicted to hit a record high this year, yet the Trump administration plans to eliminate a cap on the amount of the greenhouse gas new US coal-fired power plants can emit.

Last Thursday, Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler — a former coal lobbyist — unveiled the a plan for “clean coal.” He made the specious claim that this form of coal, which is “cleaned” via a chemical process, “promises a cleaner, safer, stronger future” and “you will see decreases in [carbon] emissions worldwide.” Wheeler predicted the US could export its clean coal technology, which would stimulate the domestic economy. In the US plants that have burned clean coal have also received generous federal tax subsidies.

“The EPA proposal will allow new coal plants to be built,” said Michelle Bloodworth of America’s Power at the press conference.

The agency also trotted out the head of the US Black Chamber of Commerce to float the unproven statement that the Obama-era rule would increase Black and Latinx poverty rates.

Under the Obama administration, the EPA proposed a rule  limiting emissions of carbon dioxide from newly built coal-fired power plants. Industry leaders and more than two-dozen states, including North Carolina under the McCrory administration, immediately rebelled and sued in court, arguing no technology existed that could keep emissions under the proposed limit. They said the proposed regulations would close some plants, putting thousands of miners and employees out of work. The Clean Power Plan was never implemented.

Coal-fired power plants have closed, but not because the the Obama administration’s proposed rule. Many of the coal-fired plants switched to natural gas, and renewable energy, such as solar and wind, has also made significant gains. In 2018, US coal consumption in expected to be the lowest in 39 years. Still, the US generates the largest amount of carbon dioxide per person in the world.

And “clean coal” has a dirty secret, according to a Reuters investigation analyzing data from 2012-2015 from two Duke Energy plants in North Carolina. Any reductions in carbon dioxide were offset by increased emissions of nitrogen oxide, a major component of acid rain. Meanwhile, the chemicals used to “clean” the coal, calcium bromide, wound up in lakes near the Marshall Steam Station, raising levels of bromide in the drinking water. Bromide, which is an unregulated contaminant, has been linked to bladder cancer in humans. And when bromide mixes with chlorine, which is used in disinfecting public water supply, it forms trihalomethanes, which are cancer-causing. Duke Energy stopped using the process in 2015.

The administration’s announcement occurred at the same time that global leaders met in Poland for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to help countries meet their agreed-upon greenhouse gas reductions, including carbon dioxide.

10.1 — Gigatons of carbon dioxide that will be emitted worldwide this year

9.9 — Gigatons of CO2 emitted last year

1,470 — Number of power plants generating energy from coal, 2007

529 — Number of power plants that have been retired in the past decade

52,823 — Number of coal miners, Appalachian region, 2001

29,587 — Number in 2017

851.6 million —  Tons of coal consumed by all electric power sources, 2014

664.9 million — In 2017

256 — Percentage increase in US solar energy consumption, 2013-2019 (estimate)

67 — Percentage increase in US wind energy consumption, 2013-2019 (estimate)

Source: US Energy Information Administration

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.