This week the Obama administration proposed its first-ever regulations of carbon dioxide from new coal and natural gas plants—but the regulations' practical effects may prove to be negligible.
Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency chief, announced the proposed Clean Air Act standards, which will cut carbon pollution from new power plants in order to combat climate change and improve public health.
"Climate change is one of the most significant public health challenges of our time," McCarthy said in a statement. "By taking common sense action to limit carbon pollution from new power plants, we can slow the effects of climate change and fulfill our obligation to ensure a safe and healthy environment for our children."
The announcement is part of President Barack Obama's promise to act on climate without Congressional approval; Congress has been gridlocked on energy issues since a cap-and-trade bill passed the House but failed in the Senate in 2009-10.
Under the proposed standards, new coal plants will be held to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt/hour, down from the current average of 1,800-to-2,100 pounds per megawatt/hour.
Natural gas-fired plants will be held to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt/hour, though emissions from advanced natural gas plants are already below the new standard, at 800 pounds per megawatt/hour.
Climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann, author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, says, "Limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants is an important first step in the wider battle to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations before we commit to dangerous, potentially irreversible changes in our climate."
Former Vice President and chairman of The Climate Project, Al Gore, also commended the proposed guidelines in his public statement, "This is a critical achievement for President Barack Obama and his administration. In the face of an intransigent and inactive Congress, the President has made halting the climate crisis a priority."
But the regulations won't have much of an impact for a while, if at all.
The EPA plans a year-long listening tour, a 60-day comment period, and an army of litigators, so the regulations might not go into effect until fall 2014—just in time to be campaign fodder in the entirely chimerical "war on coal."
More importantly, new regulations apply to new power plants only—not the nation's hundreds of existing coal plants—and even new plants will be given up to seven years to comply.
The burning question is whether the regulations will kill off coal plants or whether coal is expiring from other causes.
It's widely assumed that the only way a coal plant can meet the standard is through expensive, untested carbon capture and sequestration. Republicans are claiming that the administration has a "war on coal." Expect to see Congressional Review Act bills being introduced by coal-state Senators.
However, that "war" has been waged as much by cheap, natural gas as it has by any politician; as only one of dozens of examples, a San Antonio power company announced in July its plans to close its oldest power plant and replace it with a natural, gas-fired one. Even without the CCS added on, coal doesn't make economic sense until natural gas rises above $7 per million BTUs—and it's been selling below that, for $3-to-$6 per million BTUs.
As for existing power plants, which are estimated to emit 40 percent of the nation's carbon pollution, a separate set of regulations is being worked on, to be announced in June 2014.
Coal in the United States is being seen, more and more, as a dead man walking. The combination of cheap natural gas, EPA regulations, and climate change awareness is mothballing new coal plants. So in the end, the regulations on them seem like just a warm-up for those forthcoming on existing plants.