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Dispatch from a Colorado coal confab, where new emissions regs were top of mind

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Tay Wiles | Sep 28, 2013 03:00 AM

As U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chief Gina McCarthy finishes a three-state tour to plug her new power plant emissions standards, coal industry representatives met in Delta County in western Colorado for an annual trade conference. Thursday morning started with the usual reports on which Komatsu haul trucks, draglines and Hitachi excavators are en vogue. An announcement was made about a coal mining-focused episode of a new Weather Channel reality show, “Heavy Metal Monsters,” about guys doing dangerous jobs in severe weather. Golf hats, Leatherman knives and Anti Monkey Butt powder (to stop friction of clothing against skin) were raffled off to the crowd. In other words, it was your typical fossil fuel conference. Except a foreboding cloud hung over it: Just days before the event, news of the EPA regulations broke, dealing yet another blow to an already beleaguered industry.

“The one thing we have going for us is that you can’t replace (40 percent) of the country’s energy source over night,” said  Trapper Mining environmental engineer Graham Roberts. "It took decades to build and it will take decades to replace the current generation with any sort of alternative."

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Coal mine in Somerset, Colo. Photo from Flickr user Aspen/Snowmass.

The new regulations, announced Sept. 20, would require future power plants to reduce emissions to the extent that they'll have to capture 20 to 40 percent of carbon they emit. In effect, new coal plants would need to use technology like carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, to meet the standards. Yet, since CCS technology has yet to be perfected and is not economically viable, the EPA’s announcement would all but put a moratorium on coal. Except that environmentalists, and market forces, basically already did that.

Fossil fuel opponents have stopped any major expansions in the coal industry by fighting nearly every proposed plant in court for the past several years. According to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, 179 coal plants have been “defeated” across the country, including 47 in the West. Without this grassroots groundwork already in place, the Obama administration’s recent step toward combating climate change would have been a lot less likely – but also a lot more meaningful as climate policy. In addition to the Sierra Club’s anti-coal efforts, a natural gas boom resulting in low natural gas prices has helped set the stage for coal’s continued struggle.

Yet there are still 44 coal-fired plants, according to the Sierra Club, that are either “upcoming” or “progressing.” That includes three in Colorado, two in Wyoming, Alaska and Montana, and one in Nevada that may still be built. If those plants go forward, and aren’t grandfathered into current standards, they’ll have to answer to the revised EPA emissions rules.

Vince Matthews, the former director of the Colorado Geological Survey and a co-principal investigator on a $12 million research project to determine whether carbon sequestration is viable in the Rocky Mountain region, says that the method of storing carbon is certainly doable from a geologic standpoint. His new research, to be submitted to the Department of Energy in the coming months, identified several areas on the Colorado Plateau suitable for safe carbon storage. “We’ve jumped forward a long way here,” but it’s still prohibitively expensive. And the capture piece of the process remains unproven for large-scale power generation.

Greens are of course pleased that President Obama’s showing signs of following through with his promises to address climate change by changing the way we use energy – using less dirty energy, using more clean energy, wasting less energy throughout our economy,as he said in June. But what really matters is how the EPA will deal with existing, not just future, plants. Those additional regulations are expected to come out next summer.

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Different options for carbon sequestration including bio-sequestration (terrestrial), geologic (subsurface) and mineralization (chemical mixing). Credit: Genevieve Young, Colorado Geological Survey. Click image for larger view.

Amid state, federal and environmentalist challenges to the coal industry, utilities are exploring ways to diversify their power sources to include more renewables in the mix. At the Delta conference, Barry Ingold, senior manager at Tri-State, a major generation and transmission group in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming, pointed to new Colorado requirements as a serious challenge to coal, and a reason to continue exploring an alternative energy mix. Bill 252, signed into law in June, requires rural electric cooperatives in the state to ensure 20 percent of their electricity comes from renewables by 2020.

Near the end of Ingold’s presentation, a question shot from the audience: “So, will you ever build a new coal plant?”

“We’re keeping our options open,” the Tri-State manager said. “We don’t want to get boxed in a corner.”

“So that means no,” quipped another member of the audience, followed by resounding, but nervous, laughter.

Tay Wiles is HCN's online editor. She Tweets @taywiles.

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