‘Clean Coal’ Means No Coal
Obama the candidate tries to appear friendly to all energy sources.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson


Two weeks ago, the Obama campaign quietly edited its website to highlight the president’s support for “clean coal.” In place of a section for “energy efficiency” with no mention of coal, now boasts that the stimulus package “invested substantially in carbon capture and sequestration research.” 

The administration’s position on coal has, shall we say, evolved. In 2001, the EPA released an endangerment finding stating that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide threaten public health and the environment by contributing to climate change and that therefore they could be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Since then, as Bryan Walsh noted in Time magazine, the EPA has “embark[ed] on what could be the most far-reaching environmental regulatory scheme in American history.”  

Already, 57 coal-fired plants have closed owing to the EPA’s regulations, according to the National Mining Association. Supporters insist that policies favoring renewable energy sources will lead to lower costs. However, the burden of these coal regulations has contributed to a $300 increase in the average household’s electricity bill over the last five years, despite the substantial stimulus investment “in carbon capture and sequestration research.” Some of this increased cost can be attributed to more demand for electricity. But USA Today reports that the rise in cost is due in part to “the expense of replacing old power plants, including heavily polluting — but cheap to operate — coal plants that don’t meet federal clean air requirements.”  

It’s impossible to predict exactly how much these regulations will cost, as the standards themselves are likely to change. Under the Clean Air Act, when an outside group sues an energy producer for supposedly overstepping an emission standard, the EPA can register a consent agreement, which settles the suit in exchange for toughening the standard industry-wide.

This is one of the problems with, for example, the EPA’s new, first-ever fracking regulations. Drilling companies are required to install emission-limiting technology, which most already use. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has called the EPA’s regulatory restraint on this front a “miracle,” adding that “most wellheads and pipelines already exceed the EPA benchmark.” Once the EPA establishes regulations, however, they are bound to become more stringent over time. After the EPA produced its finding on greenhouse gases, for example, it declared that it would start regulating carbon, thereby initiating the continual ratcheting-up process.

Any hopes that the attempt by the Obama campaign to recast the president’s stance on coal presaged a change in the administration’s policies in the run-up to the election were soon dashed. On May 16, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson signed a toughened version of its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which require power companies to install equipment to reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide in all coal- and oil-fired plants by 2016.  

During a hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Jackson testified that only about half of coal-fired plants now have such equipment. The goal of the new policy is to compel the rest of the plants into compliance, but it seems the new rules might simply chase some companies out of the market. According to West Virginia’s MetroNews, “the new standards Jackson signed . . . have already caused several power companies doing business in West Virginia to announce the closings of some of their older coal-fired power plants.”

This decision comes in the wake of the EPA’s proposal to cap carbon-dioxide emissions from new fossil-fuel-fired plants. Signed by Jackson in March, the proposal when finalized would limit new power plants that are 25 megawatts and larger to no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon pollution per megawatt hour of electricity. That would be a 40 to 60 percent decrease for the typical coal-fired plant.

The EPA “believes this proposed rule will have no notable compliance costs associated with it,” as it expects that new plants will already have the necessary equipment for carbon capture and sequestration because of “existing and expected market conditions.” If that were true, then the proposal would be unnecessary. But even supporters of the proposal acknowledge (or celebrate) that the standards it imposes would raise costs. In an article for the Center for American Progress, Daniel Weiss, Jackie Weidman, and Celine Ramstein write that “these additional costs may make some proposed coal-fired power plants uneconomical, so they may be canceled.”

Like many euphemisms, “clean coal” is an oxymoron — the adjective cancels out the noun. Though Obama the candidate tries to appear friendly to all energy sources (especially ones associated with potential swing states, like coal and fracking-accessed shale in Ohio and Pennsylvania), Obama the president has long played favorites.

Nash Keune is a Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the Franklin Center.