[A longer version of this post appeared at Ordinary Times.]
It's been a tough year for coal in the United States.
I generally dislike the use of war-on-this and war-on-that.
But if the intended meaning is
"make it much more difficult and/or expensive to continue burning large quantities of coal to produce electricity,"
then the phrase is accurate.
Where most people who use it are wrong
is just who it is that's fighting the war.
It's the federal courts,
and to a lesser degree some of the individual states.
The EPA is just the tool through which the courts are acting.
also ghosts of Congresses past,
who left us with various environmental protection statutes in their current form.
Since the SCOTUS hammered the coal side of the fight
twice this just-concluded term,
it seems like a good time to write a little status report.
Not all the constituents of coal are combustible.
Anywhere from 3% and up are not and are left behind as ash,
and even 3% of a billion tons is a lot of ash.
A bit more than 40% of coal ash is typically reused in various ways:
some of it can replace Portland cement in the right circumstances,
some it can be used as fill for roadbeds,
The remainder winds up in landfills or ash ponds.
Ash ponds contain an ash/water slurry;
the wet ash stays where it's put rather than being blown away by the wind.
Ash pond spills are becoming more common.
The federal EPA has not regulated ash ponds in the past;
in January this year
the DC District Court accepted a consent decree between the EPA and several plaintiffs
that requires the EPA to issue final findings on ash pond problems
The expectation is that the findings will lead to significant new regulation,
and increased spending on both existing and future ash ponds.
Things are also happening at the state level.
The North Carolina Senate unanimously approved a bill last week
that would require the closure of all coal ash ponds in the state
over the next 15 years.
NC's not exactly one of your liberal Northeastern or Pacific Coast states.
last week the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of
Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA.
This opinion confirmed the Court's 2009 opinion in Massachusetts v. EPA
that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gases.
Massachusetts was a suit brought by several states
against the Bush EPA,
which had decided the carbon dioxide was not harmful.
I think Utility is an odd opinion,
cobbled together out of three different factions on the court
(more about that in a moment).
The opinion has three conclusions:
(a) the EPA can and must regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources,
(b) the EPA can only regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources
if those sources would have been regulated for non-greenhouse emissions anyway, and
(c) the somewhat controversial approach the EPA is taking to the regulation is acceptable.
The last one seems to me to have been sort of an afterthought.
it's likely that we'll see a number of cases about it later
when the states make the details of their individual plans known.
The results of the various court decisions are going to have
very different effects on different states.
Compare California and North Carolina, to pick two (not exactly at random).
North Carolina has 43 coal ash ponds;
California has none.
despite being a much smaller state,
generates more than 30 times as much electricity from coal
the MATS rule will require much more effort to meet in North Carolina.
The CSAPR does not apply to California;
but North Carolina power plants will be required to make reductions
to improve air quality in downwind states.
North Carolina has to reduce the CO2 intensity of its generating plants
by more than the national average;
California's required reduction is much less than the average,
and decisions that California has already made at the state level
will probably be sufficient to meet the EPA requirements.
North Carolina's electricity rates are likely,
it seems to me,
to be noticeably higher in the future;
California's rates will remain high and perhaps go higher,
but aren't going to be driven by these decisions.