Besieged by the Obama administration and its host of new environmental regulations, the U.S. coal industry is beginning to fight back.
Thousands of miners and their families will descend on Washington on Tuesday for the “Count on Coal” rally, bringing with them a simple message for the Environmental Protection Agency and other arms of the federal government that seem intent on relegating the fuel to the ash pile of history.
“The message is that there’s a lot of people out there in states that not only mine coal, but rely heavily on coal. There’s a lot of frustration building up at people here in Washington that they aren’t really listening and looking out for them,” said Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, one of the rally’s prime organizers. “It’s a way of life. [Coal miners] are very proud of what they do for this country.”
But dark days seem to lie ahead for the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution and still is responsible for providing about 40 percent of American electricity.
Already under economic pressure from the rise — and near record low prices — of natural gas, coal also could fall victim to the Obama administration’s climate change agenda, which the president said is a key goal in his second term.
Central to that agenda are regulations put forth by the EPA last month to limit carbon emissions from new power plants. The rules also apply to natural gas facilities, but those plants should be able to meet the new standards easily.
For coal, it’s a different story.
The EPA has proposed a limit of 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour for coal facilities, a figure the industry and energy analysts say is virtually impossible to meet with current commercially available, financially viable technology.
Because of that proposal and others, the administration’s program to fight climate change has become the target of the coal industry and congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
The rally on Capitol Hill will include speeches from prominent coal-state members of Congress, including Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who represents the major coal-producing state of Kentucky, also will speak.
“Kentucky coal miners have suffered far too much already, and Congress cannot sit idly by and let the EPA unilaterally destroy a vital source of energy and employment. The president’s war on coal is a war on Kentucky jobs,” said McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer.
Administration officials say the “war on coal” is fiction. They don’t dispute their desire to greatly reduce carbon emissions, but argue that coal remains, and will remain for the foreseeable future, an irreplaceable part of the nation’s energy portfolio.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, when announcing her agency’s new regulations, said coal can remain a part of the mix with the right technological breakthroughs.
“They have a path forward for the next generation of power plants in this country,” she said last month.
But Mr. Quinn and others dispute that “path forward,” which relies on carbon-capture technology that would trap emissions before they are released into the air. Such technology exists, but it’s not commercially available nor close to being financially feasible.
“We want this to be successful. This is probably the transformational technology if people are serious about reducing greenhouse gases but it needs more time,” Mr. Quinn said.
With regulations outpacing technological growth, coal proponents from across the country are bracing for the worst.
“Our sense here is it would be every bit as bad as people think it will be. The way I put it, this is the war on America’s economy because this will ripple through the entire U.S. economy in a huge way,” said John Kinkaid, a commissioner in Moffat County, Colo., which has two major coal mines within its borders and another just across the county line.
“In Moffat County, our real economic asset is our energy. If we lose those jobs, we really will become a ghost town,” he added.
The EPA’s power plant limits, analysts say, will be unaffected by a key Supreme Court decision expected next year.
The high court this month announced that it would review a lower-court ruling that the EPA was forced by law to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from power plants after implementing similar restrictions on automobiles.
The agency contended that tackling automobile emissions triggered a portion of the Clean Air Act that made them also address power plants.
Specialists say the specific carbon rules — by far the most far-reaching and potentially harmful regulation aimed at the coal industry — likely will not be affected by the court’s decision.