Politicians in praise of coal 

click to enlarge CSX coal drag leaving Evansville - COURTESY OF ALAN BERNING
  • CSX coal drag leaving Evansville
  • Courtesy of Alan Berning

In a letter to President Obama last week, the majority of Indiana's Congressional Delegation joined forces to express "concern about the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) plans to issue greenhouse gas new source performance standards for new fossil fuel-based electric generating sources." Both of the state's U.S. senators - Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly - signed the letter, along with seven of its nine representatives. Congressmen Visclosky and Carson declined to sign. The letter talked about the low fuel costs Indiana's coal dependency enables and the industry's overall economic impact, including the more than 2,500 jobs the industry supports.

The letter did not factor in externalities associated with climate change or other environmental or health-related impacts such as Indiana's higher-than-average asthma rates.

Among the letter's more provocative assumptions: "New technologies for coalbased power generation are laying the foundation for advancements in power plant efficiency, bringing us closer to a future where near-zero emissions from coal are a reality."

Citizens Action Coalition's Executive Director Kerwin Olson did not go so far as to call the statement a lie, just an oxymoron.

In response to a request for comment, Olson wrote:

"Coal wreaks horrifying damage on our environment and public health from the mouth of the mine to the air we breathe and the water we drink. The devastating destruction associated with coal mining is well documented and understood, as is the adverse impacts from fugitive dust resulting from the delivery of coal. We haven't even gotten to the coal plant where coal combustion waste ranks as the second highest waste stream in the country.

We need look no further than the Edwardsport IGCC [integrated gasification combined cycle process, which gasifies coal], allegedly the model for the future of "clean" coal and the cleanest coal plant ever built, to dispel the statement below. What's clean about 4 metric tons of carbon dioxide, over 1,500 tons of nitrous oxide and over 1,200 tons of particulate matter? Let's not forgot to mention significant emissions of volatile organic compounds, sulfuric acid, lead, beryllium and other toxic metals.

With respect to economics, it's clear when you look at both the Kemper IGCC and the Edwardsport IGCC and the massive cost overruns, we know now that other than new nuclear and baseload solar thermal that IGCC and coal gasification is the most expensive option. Those two boondoggles may have decided the fate of IGCC before they were even complete.

New coal plants simply cannot compete with wind, natural gas, and end use energy efficiency right now. It's not even close. Additionally, rooftop PV is now competitive with coal and is projected to drop at least another 50% over the next 5 years, while the cost of coal will continue to skyrocket.

Lastly, the only answer to emissions is to stop making them. Sen. Coats and his Congressional colleagues need to get their head out the 20th century and recognize that Indiana's addiction to coal is leaving us behind. We're losing manufacturing jobs, continuing to pollute our air and water, and driving up the cost of electricity faster than most other States, creating significant burdens on small business, residential consumers, and most notably, vulnerable populations."

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, also weighed in:

"Improvements in power plant efficiency in and of themselves are unlikely to make a dent on the extraordinary carbon footprint of coal-fired electricity. When America - eventually - joins our economic competitors in developing a comprehensive national policy on carbon emissions, we'll have two choices with respect to coal: commercialize carbon capture and sequestration, which would lead, in principle, to dramatic declines in carbon emissions from coal, or accelerate the diversification towards non-carbon baseload resources from coal.

In the absence of a price on carbon, the EPA rule - which is more sophisticated than the writers of this letter describe it to be - should be welcomed, rather than resisted, because it's the long-delayed spur the coal industry needs to decarbonize, and thereby compete in a world where more and more nations are establishing a price on carbon, and thereby accelerating their shift from coal."

Here is the full text of the politicians' letter:

The Honorable Barack Obama
The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:

We write to express our continued concern about the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) plans to issue greenhouse gas new source performance standards for new fossil fuel-based electric generating sources. The proposed performance standards would require new coal-fired power plants to meet the same requirements as new gas-fired power plants - an unprecedented standard under the Clean Air Act. This blanket standard will discourage the upgrade of existing sources and effectively prevent the construction of new coal-fired plants. This could prevent the intended goal of the rule while simultaneously doing much to harm our economy and threaten the reliability of our electricity supply.

This proposed rule unnecessarily discriminates against coal as part of our country's energy portfolio and will dramatically increase the cost of electricity from coal-fired plants. This is the same electricity that Hoosiers have found more reliable and affordable than most of the country and that job creators consider a critical part of our state's attractive business environment. Families and businesses cannot afford increased energy costs as our nation's economy continues to struggle. And our nation cannot afford to implement policies that effectively mandate the use of more expensive or less reliable fuels for electricity generation, leaving us behind nations such as China and India who are taking advantage of low-cost coal to meet their energy needs.

Additionally, Indiana is annually among the top ten coal producing states in the nation averaging 32,000,000 to 35,000,000 tons each year. Not only is coal a vital energy source for all Hoosiers, but the mining industry supports more than 2,500 Hoosier jobs and contributes more than $750 million to our economy. The reserve base for the entire Illinois Basin, which includes Indiana coal, is over 130 billion tons or 25 percent of total demonstrated coal reserves in the United States - and is enough to meet entire U.S. coal demands for over 100 years.

Our nation can continue to utilize coal while lowering emissions. New technologies for coal-based power generation are laying the foundation for advancements in power plant efficiency, bringing us closer to a future where near-zero emissions from coal are a reality. These technologies allow us to modernize our existing coal fleet, improve efficiency, and produce low-cost power for customers. However, as proposed, the EPA rule will effectively prohibit the construction of new plants and eliminate an opportunity to provide economic stimulus to our nation's manufacturing and construction sectors.

We respectfully request you to reject the current proposal and instead urge the EPA to amend the proposed rule to exercise the option available to the agency for differentiating standards based on fuel type and subcategories and not discriminate against coal as a source for generation. Such an amendment is essential to create new jobs and strengthen the economy.


Dan Coats, United States Senator; Joe Donnelly, United States Senator; Marlin Stutzman, Member of Congress; Larry Bucshon, Member of Congress; Todd Rokita, Member of Congress; Todd Young, Member of Congress; Susan W. Brooks, Member of Congress; Jackie Walorski, Member of Congress; Luke Messer, Member of Congress

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Rebecca Townsend

Rebecca Townsend

Rebecca Townsend served as NUVO news editor from May 2011 to August 2014. During a 20-plus year career, her bylines have appeared in publications ranging from Indiana AgriNews to the Wall Street Journal. Her undergraduate degree is in sociology and anthropology from Earlham College, and her master's is in journalism... more

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