As everyone talks about the Obama Administration’s first 100 days, I thought I’d join the conversation and give a status report on what they’ve done to end the use of coal and the destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.
The steps taken so far on coal-fired power plants are definitely putting the U.S. on the right track toward clean energy:
EPA Opposes Big Stone II Coal Plant in South Dakota: On January 23, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overturned approval of this proposed coal-fired power plant. EPA's decision came after the state failed to require state-of-the-art pollution controls for the coal plant - controls that would address harmful soot, smog and global warming pollution. This decision showed that EPA is back to enforcing long-standing legal requirements fairly and consistently nationwide and that they're concerned about pollution and global warming.
A Major Step Toward Regulating CO2 From Coal Plants: On February 17, President Obama's EPA took the first step toward regulating carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. EPA, under the new leadership of Administrator Lisa Jackson, granted a petition from the Sierra Club and other groups calling for reconsideration of a memo issued by former EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson which sought to prohibit controls on global warming pollution from coal plants.
EPA Calls Global Warming Pollution a Threat
On April 17, EPA issued a finding that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases represent a significant threat to public health and welfare. EPA now has both the authority and the obligation to regulate global warming pollution. After this announcement, to continue supporting President Obama’s great strides toward a clean energy economy, Sierra Club announced its new Big Picture Campaign. The grassroots effort will generate public comments and support for the numerous administrative findings, rules and regulations expected over the coming months and years.
Reevaluating New Source Review Rules: The Obama Administration is signaling clearly this week that it will no longer be business-as-usual for coal-fired power plants. On April 27, EPA announced that it will review three regulations related to power plant emissions. The most important part of these three New Source Review rules is the one saying power plants cannot ignore fine particle/soot anymore. The Bush Administration rule had allowed new plants to avoid any evaluation of fine particle/soot impacts.
The Administration is also continuing the Clinton-era national initiative to stop illegal pollution from coal–fired power plants. Already it has filed suits against the Big Cajun 2 coal-fired power plant in Louisiana, and the Jeffrey Energy Center in Kansas to hold the plants accountable for operating without modern pollution controls to limit soot and smog, which can worsen asthma, increase the risk of respiratory illness and heart attack and even lead to premature death. Both coal plants failed to upgrade their pollution controls when they upgraded the rest of their facilities as required under the New Source Review provision of the Clean Air Act.
While these are positive moves toward clean energy, they certainly don’t mean coal is out of the picture yet – and especially not mountaintop removal coal mining.
To be clear, the Obama Administration has not yet filled leadership positions in key agencies nor enacted all the rule changes that would end this destructive practice. But there have been some good steps forward in the first 100 days:
First Setback for Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining: On March 24, 2009, EPA exercised its authority under the Clean Water Act to object to several mountaintop removal coal mining permit applications, halting these projects until changes are made to minimize their environmental impacts. In the announcement, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stated that she has “directed the agency to review other mining permit requests. EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment.”
If the Obama Administration continues to use the best science in evaluating the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining, then the days of destruction are numbered.
Stopping a VA Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Operation: On April 8, EPA requested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revoke the permit for A&G Coal’s massive Ison Rock Ridge mountaintop removal coal mine in Southwest Virginia. By intervening to stop new devastation, President Obama’s EPA did something that the Bush Administration failed to do.
Then just this week, the EPA intervened to take over review of a permit for a massive mountaintop removal coal mine in Pike County, Kentucky. Once again, EPA Administrator Jackson seems to be fulfilling her promise of using sound science and working to protect the environment.
But with the explosives and bulldozers standing by, it will take tough enforcement and more rule changes and legislation to end mountaintop removal coal mining completely. Although the EPA has said it is reviewing hundreds of new permits, the agency has stated that the vast majority of mining permits will likely still be approved.
Serious steps to end mountaintop removal coal mining would support clean energy solutions in Appalachia and create good, green jobs in America. Already close to 2,000 miles of streams have been contaminated or destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining, and communities throughout the Appalachian region suffer daily from contaminated drinking water, increased flooding, and a decimated landscape. At least another 200 miles of streams could be destroyed if the Obama administration – and the White House Council on Environmental Quality specifically – does not act in the next 60 days to end it.
Beyond ending mountaintop removal coal mining, there are many other steps that must be taken to switch to clean energy and away from coal. Coal burning only occurs because of loopholes the industry has at every stage of its lifecycle – from mining it, to burning it and disposing of its ash.
President Obama is systematically closing these loopholes and establishing a level playing field for clean energy, and we look forward to continuing our work with his administration to end coal power and bring the U.S. into a clean energy future.
Should the U.S. build more coal-fired power plants? See the Opposing Views debate.