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July 22, 2009

The Climate Bill Shouldn’t Give Coal a Free Pass

This is the weekly post from Bruce Nilles, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.

Now that historic U.S. climate legislation – the American Clean Energy and Security Act – (ACES), has passed the House of Representatives and the Senate is debating its version of energy/climate legislation, let’s talk about what must be fixed before it gets to the President’s desk.

Big Coal has long sought and enjoyed loopholes for their dirty industry – anything to keep the money rolling in as they avoid cleaning up. And now, over objections of our clean energy champions, this bill gives them another massive loophole that the Senate must correct.

Although coal-fired power plants account for roughly a third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions (making them our single largest source of global warming pollution), the legislation gives them a free pass to continue business as usual — without making any serious reductions in heat-trapping CO2 for at least fifteen years, and bringing us increasingly closer to a climate crisis.  

There is some modestly good news for new plants that don’t yet have their construction permit: no later than 2025, they will have to cut their carbon emissions in half.  But the bad news is that the bill exempts a slug of plants permitted but not yet built, plus the huge fleet of America’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants, from any requirement to clean up and cut their CO2 emissions.

This is a disaster in the making, because it threatens to block the way for the U.S. to transition rapidly to a clean energy economy. These old dirty coal plants need to clean up or be retired. But the way the bill works right now, instead of encouraging investment in new industries and new plants that are subject to stringent standards, it leaves the door open to expand the old plants with no added safeguards.

By “grandfathering” existing coal-fired capacity, which accounts for 44 percent of U.S. electricity generation, the bill repeats the mistakes of the 1977 Clean Air Act — mistakes that we have been paying for in the form deadly air pollution ever since. 

Three decades ago, Congress exempted older plants from soot and smog limits that applied to new units, on the assumption (and promise by the industry) that they would soon be retired. Instead, the industry took full advantage of this loophole to refurbish old plants and, in some cases, to expand their capacity and emit even more of the air pollution that causes tens of thousands of asthma attacks, hospitalizations, heart attacks, and premature deaths every year. We can’t repeat that mistake.

While ACES does make some good strides in reducing global warming pollution, Big Coal cannot be allowed to vent billions of tons of pollution without consequence.

To close this huge loophole and level the playing field between coal and clean energy, the Senate must insist that the oldest, dirtiest plants will retire by a date certain or meet the same pollution standards as new plants. And, until they retire or clean up, existing plants must be prohibited from expanding their capacity and increasing carbon pollution.  These measures would create an incentive for industry to use cleaner technologies instead of continuing to lean on the dirty dinosaurs that generate too much of our electricity today.  Finally, if Congress cannot muster the backbone to clean up the nation’s oldest and most dangerous coal plants, it ought to restore the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to do so.

The stakes could not be greater.  We cannot let Big Coal get away with another massive loophole to continue polluting at the same level as today for 1-2 more decades.  Congress must close the coal loophole and make the coal industry slash its pollution. Our future depends on it.


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