Cleaner air possible without throwing thousands out of work

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) listening tour will arrive in Washington D.C. today (Nov. 7) to encourage the public to provide its feedback regarding upcoming carbon limits for the nation's existing fleet of power plants. These regulations stand to shutter coal-fired plants across the country and force thousands out of jobs.

Jobs like the 240 at Massachusetts-based Brayton Point Power Station—the 150th coal plant to close its doors as a result of these harmful regulations.

Sadly, Brayton is not an exception.   All across the country, thousands of Americans are facing job losses and bracing themselves for rising energy costs as hundreds of power plants are forced to close, many thanks to lawsuits filed by environmental activists eager to drive coal-based electricity from the nation’s energy supply.  Even as the economy struggles to supply jobs to families that need them, activists at the Sierra Club used the Brayton plant closing as an opportunity to rejoice.  This ability to callously celebrate lost jobs is hard to fathom given all the ways this reverberates throughout affected families, from access to food, education and medical care to losing one’s home. 

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It’s important to point out, however, that the Sierra Club cannot take full credit for these woes.  The Obama administration’s latest power plant regulations are symptomatic of the dangerous direction that EPA policies are taking us, a direction that clearly gambles with America’s energy future and puts us on a path toward more costly energy, less reliable electricity and-- despite the Administration’s claims of making job creation its top priority-- the forfeit of hundreds of thousands of job opportunities across the country.

The EPA’s New Source Performance Standard (NSPS), a proposed regulation for controlling carbon dioxide emissions, effectively bans coal from America's power portfolio. These arbitrary standards will deal a walloping blow to an industry that contributes nearly $100 billion to the U.S. economy, supports millions of jobs and generates 40 percent of the nation's electricity.  This policy even leaves new power plants equipped with the most efficient and environmentally advanced technologies out in the cold. The EPA has chosen to stymie clean coal technology by setting emissions levels well below what is knowingly feasible for even the newest innovations in coal power plants, leaving many  energy experts scratching their heads about the merits of such a policy.  Even EPA’s former air chief, Jeff Holmstead recently commented, “It’s odd that [the EPA thinks] it's a good idea to ban new coal-fired power plants.”

Many of the jobs that have been lost or blocked are in states that desperately need new employment opportunities.  In Illinois, for example,  proposed power plants blocked by the Sierra Club and EPA could have supported approximately 127,000 new jobs – likely putting a dent in the state’s 9.2 percent unemployment rate. And in Texas, blocked power plant construction could have created more than 122,000 job opportunities, while providing added security in a state at significant risk of electric power shortages.

The economic pain spreads far beyond those employed by power plants, railroads and coal mines.  Citizens and industries alike depend on coal as our nation’s most affordable, most reliable energy source. U.S. households already spend more than 20 percent of their annual budgets on energy — a figure that will surely rise if coal is increasingly shut out of America’s energy portfolio.  Manufacturing costs will likewise jump, possibly reversing the positive “reshoring” trend that finds manufacturing operations returning to the U.S.  In the meantime, our global competitors in other countries continue to build new coal powered facilities in order to spur low cost manufacturing and maintain their advantage.  In fact, thanks to powerful demand from rapidly developing countries such as China and India, coal is the fastest growing fuel worldwide for the past decade and is widely expected to surpass oil as the world’s number one energy source by 2017.

The pain is compounded by the fact that shutting down the major source of the country’s electricity is unnecessary to achieve significant environmental progress.   According to a recent Department of Energy (DOE) study, a coal plant built today with advanced coal technology emits on average 90 percent fewer pollutants than a plant that it replaces from the 1970s.  Citing this progress, DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz  recently said  that “any serious discussion of America’s clean energy future must include coal and the development of sustainable coal technologies.” 

It’s time we get practical on energy policy by recognizing we don’t have to destroy jobs and shutter power plants to make incremental environmental gains.  We have the technologies and the expertise to continue our progress in air quality and keep advanced, coal-powered electricity in our energy mix.    Let’s capitalize on this valuable U.S. asset so we can keep affordable energy here and not give the Sierra Club any more job losses to celebrate.

Quinn is president and CEO of the National Mining Association (NMA), which advocates on behalf of America’s mining and minerals resources.

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