April 02, 2004 | Back Issues
Bush Opens Door to More Coal Burning

The second story in a two part series.

In a little-noticed development with potentially devastating consequences for energy consumers, public health and the environment, the Bush Administration has been laying the groundwork for a resurgence of coal-fired power generation across the nation.

Many of the Administration's actions to roll back the Clean Air Act -- such as its weakening of New Source Review rules (rules requiring better emission controls) and its retreat on regulating mercury emissions -- are custom tailored for the coal industry. Coal-burning power plants are the largest single source of mercury and greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.[1]

With these key regulatory victories under its belt, the coal industry is leading a gold rush to acquire federal permits for coal-fired power plants before it loses control of the White House to a more public-health-friendly administration. Since Bush took office, more than 94 new coal-fired power plants have reached the planning and permitting stages, according to government sources and media reports.

"I think most Americans would be shocked that utilities are dragging the 19th century into the 21st century," says Dan Becker, director of global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club.[2]

Industry lobbyists, many of them working from inside the administration, claim that the resurgence of coal will be good for consumers. They point out, correctly, that North America sits on abundant coal reserves. Electricity generated from burning coal has been the cheapest domestic source of power since the industrial revolution; roughly 50 percent of the power produced in the U.S. still comes from coal.

But what industry officials fail to mention is the certainty that the federal government will eventually have to enact carbon and mercury regulations. According to the EPA, eight percent of American women of child-bearing age have enough mercury in their blood to pose a significant risk of nervous system damage to their children. And roughly 630,000, or 15 percent of all babies born in the U.S. each year, are exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the womb.[3]

While President Bush has abandoned a Clinton-era proposal to virtually eliminate mercury emissions from coal plants, political pressure from health advocates will inevitably force the issue. Once mercury regulations are enacted, all coal facilities -- both newer, more efficient plants and the old polluting behemoths -- will be forced to invest in expensive technology to remove mercury from their smokestack emissions.

The upshot: if the White House enacts strong mercury regulations before the new slate of coal-fired power plants is approved, plant proponents will have to include the costs of compliance in their applications to rate-setting agencies. But if the plants are approved before stronger mercury rules are enacted, the eventual costs of removing mercury from smokestack emissions will be passed on to consumers in the form of escalating electricity costs.

The tragedy is that, with meaningful investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy technology, the U.S. could avoid building any new coal generation facilities -- and could begin to shut down some plants currently in operation. But unless President Bush undergoes a miraculous change of priorities, American consumers can count on getting burned.

[1] "How industry won the battle of pollution control at EPA," New York Times, Mar. 6, 2004.
[2] "America's New Coal Rush," Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 26, 2004.
[3] "Estimate of Fetuses Exposed to High Mercury Doubles," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 6, 2004.



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