Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Is the war on coal or an obsolete business model?

Posted By on Wed, May 7, 2014 at 12:00 PM

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Finally, some good news: And from the U.S. Supreme Court, no less.

At the end of April, the Supremes voted 6-2 that the Environmental Protection Agency might actually have a job to do, namely, to try and protect our environment.

Which, when you think about it, also means protecting us, because if the air we breathe is poisonous, well, that tends to make the distance between wherever you are sitting now and your memorial service a little shorter.

I had a wonderful job once, working for a public library. This library was located a few blocks from a coal-burning power plant. I remember walking among the stacks of books. The shelving was painted a bright yellow, which served to highlight the way coal soot from the power plant managed to seep into our building. If you ran your finger along a shelf at any given time, it wasn't unusual for your fingertip to come up black. This kept everybody busy - dusting.

Getting that job with the library was a life-saver for me at the time. I've wondered, though, whether being exposed to the power plant's particulates might also have shortened that life by a certain span.

Back to the Supreme Court and the EPA. The Supremes said the Clean Air Act gives the EPA legal authority to impose regulations aimed at cutting pollution, specifically carbon dioxide, or green house gas, emissions, from coal-fired power plants. Coal plants are the worst greenhouse gas spewers in the United States.

This Supreme Court decision was part of a trifecta of recent court rulings against coal-burning plants. A Federal District Court ordered the EPA to propose a new national regulation aimed at cutting smog pollution, and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld an EPA rule limiting coal-plant mercury pollution.

All these rulings have prompted a lot of complaining in coal-dependent states like Indiana and Kentucky about a "war on coal." Utility companies don't want to install scrubbers to temper their pollution because they say it'll be too expensive. They claim this "war" will cost jobs and boost the cost of energy.

This could be true. But if it's true it's because this is the way the coal industry and its political enablers in places like the Indiana Statehouse want things.

Rather than adapting to changing circumstances, like the national security need for energy diversification, not to mention issues of public health and climate change, the coal industry argues that the answer to our increasing energy needs is more of the same.

Instead of using its profits to lead the way in finding new energy solutions, this industry seems hell-bent on preserving its 20th century business model. If this means arm-twisting the public into a false choice between being able to turn the lights on and clean air, so be it.

In most businesses an inability to change is supposed to mean death. But the coal business resists change. Here in Indiana it clings to its polluting ways as if its life depended on it.

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David Hoppe

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