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Know the West

Pro-coal arguments win the day at Denver EPA hearing on CO2 regulations


At 5 a.m. on Oct. 30, coal miners and residents of Moffat County, Colorado, gathered at a McDonald’s in Craig for a pancake breakfast before boarding buses to Denver chartered by Peabody Coal. They were headed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s listening tour, in which the agency travels around the country seeking input on its new regulations for existing coal-fired power plants, which it plans to release next June. The EPA already debuted its proposal for new power plants in September, and has since turned its attention to drafting rules for existing plants, which could have a much more profound effect on the coal industry, and on emissions, given that few new coal plants are being built anymore.

Craig’s economy is highly dependent on coal – there are three near-by mines and a large coal plant – so naturally, people wanted to tell EPA Region Eight Administrator Shaun McGrath, EPA Region Eight Air Program Director Carl Daly and other officials how carbon dioxide regulations would affect them. They were joined in Denver by boilermakers, coal company executives, trade groups and politicians from other coal-dependent areas around the West, many of whom took the EPA to task for scheduling its listening sessions far from areas like Wyoming and West Virginia where coal is mined and burned.

Jessica Unruh, a North Dakota state senator who works in the lignite coal industry, told the EPA that its choice of meeting locations “disenfranchises from the process people whose livelihoods will be directly affected.” And House Republicans went so far as to accuse the EPA of selective listening. “EPA conspicuously failed to schedule any listening sessions in states where electricity price increases may be the highest as a result of the agency’s (new regulations),” reads a blog post from the House Energy and Commerce Committee website. But, as political news website The Hill notes, the tour does include “states that produce large amounts of coal. The tour includes dates in Illinois, Texas and Pennsylvania – which all ranked in the top ten as recently as 2011, according to National Mining Association figures.”

The distance didn’t seem to stop many coal industry employees from making the long trip to Denver last week, with speakers hailing from Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Minnesota.

Over the course of the day-long session, a few themes emerged:

Local economic impacts

A number of retirees from Wyoming and Montana, some of whom had worked in the coal industry, said they were worried about the price of electricity rising if the EPA further regulates coal plants. Regulations “usually cost the consumer in the end,” said Carl Dickerson, a coal miner from Wyoming who said he spoke up at the Denver listening session “for his family.”

Many others were concerned about the loss of jobs in coal and related industries if plants shut down rather than install the expensive carbon capture technology that would allow them to continue operating. Some workers worried they wouldn’t be able to transition to jobs in natural gas if coal power is regulated out of existence. “If natural gas replaces coal, we’ll experience tens of thousands of lost jobs in maintenance workers like myself,” said Jason Small, a union boilermaker from East Helena, Mont. (As HCN has reported before, low natural gas prices are a major contributor to that fuel’s popularity, not just the EPA’s regulation of coal emissions).

Asset stranding

Utility and trade group representatives worried new carbon dioxide regulations would force the closure of plants that had just spent lots of money to comply with previous EPA regulations on mercury, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. (For more on asset stranding, read “Will stricter emissions limits mean stranded assets for investors?”) Wade Boeshans, who traveled from North Dakota to represent the Lignite Energy Council, told the EPA his members “have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in improved technology that is at risk of being stranded if your regulations are not flexible or appropriate.” And because so many of North Dakota’s power plants are mine-mouth, meaning they are fed by a single coal mine that has no other buyer, a power plant shut down would also strand investments in coal mines.

Singling out coal

A number of speakers who supported carbon dioxide regulations criticized the EPA for targeting coal-fired power plants for their contributions to climate change while giving natural gas a free pass. Kathleen Bailey, who described herself as “a concerned citizen,” asked EPA not to “be a natural gas promoter,” citing the many ways in which natural gas and oil extraction pollutes ground and surface water. “I am very concerned that you will be promoting the conversion from coal plants to natural gas plants rather than helping clean coal,” she said.

“A drop in the bucket”

Many coal supporters worried any reduction in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions will be insignificant because China and other countries will still be burning lots of fossil fuels. But Denver resident Josh Phillips refuted those claims, arguing that “the U.S., and specifically Colorado, has a chance to lead here in reducing carbon emissions.” That pioneering sprit, he said, is what “made our country great.”

Listening to their comments, the arguments of the pro-coal types seemed to carry the day. They definitely won the epic travel award, coming in from much further than the majority of the pro-regulation speakers. They also were not just interested citizens; they represented companies, utilities and industry groups. Environmental and renewable energy groups made a somewhat poor showing, leaving self-identified private and concerned citizens from Denver to make their arguments. Or perhaps they’re just waiting for the EPA to visit San Francisco or Seattle next week, when they’re much more likely to be the majority in the room.

Emily Guerin is a correspondent for High Country News. She Tweets @guerinemily.