SCOTUS Ruling is No Life Raft for Coal

July 7, 2022

Inside Climate News:

Roberts stopped short of the sweeping language many environmentalists feared, for example, by saying EPA had no power to act on climate change; instead, he focused on limiting EPA’s authority under one section of the Clean Air Act. And the Biden EPA clearly was expecting such a result. Early on, the agency indicated it did not plan to reinstate the Obama-era approach to regulating greenhouse gases, the Clean Power Plan. Joe Goffman, who heads up air pollution policy for the agency, was mum on exactly what approach the EPA was considering instead at his confirmation hearing before Congress last month. “We have identified different options for responding, depending on what the Supreme Court tells us the nature and contours of our authority are,” he said.

The options that are left for EPA, ironically, could be more restrictive and more expensive for the power sector than the cap-and-trade approach that the Supreme Court said was clearly outside the agency’s authority. Such an approach would have set carbon limits for each state, allowing them to shift electric generation to cleaner sources of power.

Instead, the court reads the law as saying EPA can only impose limitations on emissions within the fenceline of each individual power station. The think tank Resources for the Future has analyzed how the EPA could impose regulations limiting carbon emissions per megawatt-hour at coal power plants through technologies such as installing natural gas turbines onsite to assist in bringing down emissions—a strategy known as “co-firing” that some plants already have adopted to save money or address smog-forming pollutants. Or the agency could go even further, finding that carbon capture and storage is viable and cost-effective—the “best system of emissions reduction,” in the language of the law—and require that coal or natural gas plants install such technology to reduce their emissions. Congress, in fact, potentially made carbon capture and storage more viable by including $12 billion in direct support for the technology in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Industries often abhor such direct prescriptions from government. In fact, the power industry intervened in the West Virginia case, filing an amicus brief and delivering oral arguments in support of EPA’s authority to take a more flexible approach to drive the electric system to clean energy. But 20 states, led by fossil fuel-dependent West Virginia and North Dakota and joined by the coal mining industry, asked the court to restrict EPA authority, even before the Biden administration had a chance to write its own greenhouse gas rules. 

E&E News:

EPA had projected at the start of the year it would release a proposal for replacing the 2019 Affordable Clean Energy rule, but the agency’s timeline has now shifted to next March, according to the Biden administration’s unified agenda (Climatewire, June 22).

The court’s ruling “takes a particular approach, and possibly the best approach, off the table,” Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University’s Sabin School for Climate Change Law, said of the court decision.

Still, EPA could apply technological fixes that are better than the types of efficiency improvements favored under the Trump-era Affordable Clean Energy rule, said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program.

Those could include using carbon capture and storage technology, an approach that had been barred under the 2019 rule. Carbon capture traps CO2 from point-sources like power plants before emissions can enter the atmosphere.

Luke Bolar, chief external affairs officer at the clean energy nonprofit ClearPath, said the court’s ruling last week makes carbon capture, utilization and storage “more important than ever, and it also demonstrates the importance of congressional action.”

It’s possible EPA could use carbon capture as the basis of “best system of emission reduction,” said Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University of Law.

“Whether CCS is adequately demonstrated considering cost will be the challenge,” Adler said in an email.

E&E News:

The dueling scenes capture the challenge for coal: Following the historic ruling at the Supreme Court, where industry interests had scored a major victory by limiting EPA authority to regulate carbon dioxide, coal’s prospects remain bleak.

“When you take a serious look, the fundamentals haven’t changed. In general, this is an industry on a downward trend,” said Xizhou Zhou, an analyst who tracks the power sector at S&P Global Commodity Insights.

S&P predicts that 145 gigawatts of coal capacity will retire this decade, with coal’s share of U.S. power generation falling from 22 percent today to 5 percent in 2030. Roughly 5 percent of the U.S. coal fleet, or 11.5 GW, is expected to close this year alone, according to federal figures. Wood Mackenzie, another consulting firm, thinks coal will be gone entirely from the U.S. by 2040.

Few analysts expect the court’s ruling to change that trajectory.

The reason is due to a unique aspect of West Virginia vs. EPA: The justices issued a decision regarding a regulation that never went into effect. The Clean Power Plan was the Obama administration’s strategy for reducing CO2 from existing power plants, but it has been effectively dead since 2017, when former President Donald Trump took office

“The industry has sort of moved on in a way from a lot of federal policy, especially from an EPA perspective,” Zhou said.

In the meantime, a series of other trends have continued to take hold. Renewable energy costs have plummeted, accelerating the adoption of solar and wind beyond the timeline predicted by the regulators who crafted the Clean Power Plan. Blue states passed increasingly ambitious climate laws requiring a transition to emissions-free power. And investment in the coal industry dried up, scared off by the combination of cheap competition to coal and the threat of government regulation.

The last dynamic has been particularly evident this year. Prices of natural gas, coal’s chief competitor, have spiked. Europe is buying more American coal as a stopgap to solving its spiraling energy crisis. American grid regulators have recently issued warnings about potential electricity shortfalls.

In the past, those factors would have combined to form a coal boom, with mining companies racing to boost production. But that hasn’t happened this year, said Andy Blumenfeld, a coal analyst at McCloskey by OPIS.

The investment in coal used for power generation has largely been limited to maintaining existing mining capacity, Blumenfeld said. Most companies are using profits to pay down debt or return money to shareholders. Some are even investing in projects that don’t involve coal. Peabody Energy and Alliance Resource Partners LP have announced plans to build solar arrays and invest in electric vehicle charging, respectively.


2 Responses to “SCOTUS Ruling is No Life Raft for Coal”

  1. J4Zonian Says:

    Gas is bad as coal for climate.

    People, journalists, corporate news readers… so many many people talk as if once we get rid of coal we’ll be fine.

    Gas is as bad as coal for climate.

    “Over a 20-year time frame, the CO2e from using natural gas with a CCGT or an OCGT is 2.3 and 2.8 times, respectively, that using coal…” *

    “Congress, in fact, potentially made carbon capture and storage more viable by including $12 billion in direct support for the technology”

    The go-slow approach on climate, aka Let’s destroy civilization and nature, is still coming from every direction: SCrOTUS wrapping a big bow around the carbon capture head fake toward doing something* while Congressional Republicans, the what, me worry? crowd, pass around another hog-tied intern, & Democrats increase by 2.3% the speed at which they’re moonwalking fossil fuel-friendly “climate” er, “infrastructure” legislation in the general direction of the white house.

    * Evaluation of Coal and Natural Gas With Carbon Capture as Proposed Solutions to Global Warming, Air Pollution, and Energy Security
    Jacobson, M.Z

    Carbon Capture Takes Center Stage, But Is Its Promise an Illusion?
    The oil industry, Biden administration and even some environmentalists see sucking carbon dioxide from smokestacks and the atmosphere as critical to solving the climate crisis. But the IPCC says relying on it presents a “major risk.”
    By Nicholas Kusnetz March 9, 2022

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Aye, I’ll accept natgas is as bad as coal for climate.
      Coal-burning has been additionally bad for any creature with lungs near a coal-burning structure as it puts dangerous particulates and radioactive particles into breathable format.

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