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13 June, 2024
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Few coal plants to survive stricter US regulations

US climate overhaul threatens survival of coal-fired power plants

Source: The Guardian

New climate rules imposed by Joe Biden’s administration requiring huge cuts in carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants will accelerate the decline of an industry that until recently provided most of America’s power, experts say, potentially even dealing a death blow to coal in the US.

Coal, once the backbone of the US economy and feted by Donald Trump as he rose to the presidency, is being driven out of the power sector by cheaper renewables and gas and now faces an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation, finalized last week, that demands all coal plants not retiring by 2039 to slash their carbon emissions 90% within the coming decade.

The situation is now “probably terminal” for most of the several hundred US coal plants not already earmarked for closure, according to Seth Feaster, a coal industry analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis, who said “just a handful of plants” will likely survive beyond the end of the 2030s.

“Not many plants will be able to cut their pollution that much and fewer still will survive the energy transition past 2040,” Feaster said. “You’ll probably be able to count them on one hand.

“The decline has been unrelenting and now it’s a question of when coal ends, not if. The US hasn’t had a national climate policy, unlike in Europe, and yet we are likely to get rid of coal much faster than in Europe.”

Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels in terms of its planet-heating emissions, still accounting for more than half of the carbon pollution coming from the US power sector even as it has been eclipsed in the past decade by gas and, for the first time last year, by renewables such as solar and wind energy.

In 2023, coal plants accounted for 16% of the US’ electricity, down from more than half during a peak in 1990. Feaster said that daily data shows that stretches of 2024 so far have seen coal dip below a 15% share. “It’s amazing to see how quickly solar and batteries are being built and how low coal’s market share is getting,” he added.

Scientists have warned that the world must urgently ditch coal, followed by other fossil fuels, to help avoid worsening impacts from the climate crisis and on Tuesday the G7 group of advanced economies, which includes the US, agreed to end the “unabated” use of coal by 2035.

The new EPA rules allow coal plants to use technologies to achieve such abatement, primarily carbon capture and storage (or CCS), which traps planet-heating emissions at source and buries them to avoid pollution billowing into the atmosphere. However, despite years of support and subsidies from the US government, CCS remains costly and is unproven as a way to slash emissions.

Experts say that most coal plant operators, faced with a mostly aging fleet of facilities, some of them 70 years old, will likely just shut down rather than spend $1bn or more a plant for CCS technology. Some mining will remain as coal is still used for the making of steel, as well as for export overseas.

But in the power sector, the US is already forecast to retire half of its coal-fired generation by 2026, compared to 2011, and the new regulations, which also contain requirements to crack down on mercury pollution, wastewater discharge and coal ash disposal, means “we will see some coal retirements” beyond this, acknowledged Michael Regan, administrator of the EPA.

“This is a major step that really raises questions about the future of the coal industry in the US,” said Barry Rabe, an environmental policy expert at the University of Michigan. “If you’re a utility are you really going to pursue a technology that has been talked about for a long time but is still largely untested and is quite expensive?”

Rabe said the “wildcard” that could, temporarily, save the coal industry could be legal challenges that wind their way to the conservative-dominated US supreme court, as well as the possible return as president of Trump, who has vowed to gut Biden’s climate policies and campaigned in 2016 as an ally of coal miners, even wearing a miner’s helmet during a rally.

“This tactic by the EPA is unacceptable, and this rule flies in the face of the rule of law,” said Patrick Morrisey, attorney general of West Virginia, a major coal-producing state, of the new rules. “We are confident this new rule is not going to be upheld, and it just seems designed to scare more coal-fired power plants into retirement – the goal of the Biden administration.”

Morrisey, who successfully convinced the supreme court to limit the EPA’s ability to force power companies to switch to renewables under the Clean Air Act in 2022, said that another court challenge is on its way and that “we expect that we will once again prevail in court against this out-of-control agency.”

Coal’s supporters warn the US is barreling towards an electricity “reliability crisis”, something the EPA denies, as soaring electricity use, in part due to the electrification of things like cars as well as data processing for cryptocurrency mining and artificial intelligence, places a strain upon the grid.

However, the diminishment of the coal industry, along with the upcoming retirement of some its most vocal ongressional allies, means that coal appears rather friendless in the US. Even Trump, who promised but failed to deliver a coal renaissance while in the White House, has largely ignored coal in his 2024 campaign, instead lavishing his support upon the US’ booming oil and gas sector.

“We hear much less from the former president about coal now, it’s more about ‘drill, baby drill’”, said Rabe. “Trump will probably win the big coal producing states anyway, while Pennsylvania is one of the largest gas states and will be essential to any path to the presidency. I think we are going to be hearing a lot more about oil and gas, rather than coal.”

[Source: The Guardian]

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