Concerns over climate change and air pollution are putting increased pressure on states to do more to curb pollution from coal-fired power plants.
On April 29 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the smog from coal plants that crosses state lines from 27 Midwestern and Appalachian states to the East Coast.
In June the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose new regulations to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping greenhouse gas that scientists say is the chief cause of climate change. Coal plants, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, would likely face new restrictions on those emissions if the EPA regulations survive expected court challenges.
In another setback to coal, a Federal District Court on April 29 ordered the EPA to propose by Dec. 1 a new nationwide regulation to rein in smog pollution from coal-fired power plants and other major polluters. This rule would be in addition to the Supreme Court ruling on cross-state pollution.
And two weeks earlier, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, upheld an EPA rule under the Clean Air Act that would reduce mercury from coal plant emissions.
About 37% of America’s electric power is currently generated from coal-fired plants, including NV Energy’s Valmy plant, whose workforce is represented by IBEW 1245. Although the April 29 Supreme Court decision applies only to the 27 Midwestern and Appalachian states—not Nevada—the growing concern over greenhouse gas emissions is turning the nation’s attention to the coal industry as a whole.
A major concern for unions will be the eventual impact on workers employed at coal-fired power plants as new restrictions on emissions are imposed. NV Energy has already been on record with its plan to close down the 522-megawatt Valmy plant, which it co-owns with Idaho Power, by 2025. It is not clear if that decision will be re-visited by the new owner of the utility, MidAmerican Energy.
The nation as a whole must confront the question of how it will generate sufficient electricity if environmental concerns and regulatory pressure shove coal plants offline, as well as the question of how much those alternative sources of generation might end up costing.
But the pressure on coal is almost certain to increase as evidence accumulates about the potentially catastrophic effects of unchecked global warming, which will carry economic costs of their own.
This spring the world’s leading organization of climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released a new report concluding that changes in climate have caused impacts on “natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans,” posing a number of key risks, including:
- Risk of death, injury, ill-health, or disrupted livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones due to storm surges, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise.
- Risk of severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for large urban populations due to inland flooding in some regions.
- Systemic risks due to extreme weather events leading to breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services such as electricity, water supply, and health and emergency services.
- Risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes.
- Risk of loss of rural livelihoods and income due to insufficient access to drinking and irrigation water and reduced agricultural productivity.
The new IPCC report consists of three parts: The first is “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Sciences Basis.” //www.climatechange2013.org/ . The second part is “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.” //ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/. The third part, “Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change,” has not yet been released in final form.