There’s been a lot of talk in the past year about whether President Barack Obama is waging a so-called war on coal. It’s a loaded phrase, especially in coal-rich states like Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Today the Environmental Protection Agency issued draft rules that would limit power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide, the most consequential greenhouse gas, meeting a deadline Obama set out in an address on climate change in June. The regulations, which apply to new facilities, will surely add heat to the political coal fire.
The chart above shows how the perception that CO2 regulations represent an assault on coal isn't so far off base. Burning coal to produce electricity releases twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas, and infinitely more CO2 than solar, wind and geothermal. (Some skeptics will no doubt argue that emissions are released in the production of solar panels and wind turbines, which would be an excellent point if billion-dollar coal plants and the rail lines that feed them naturally sprung from the Earth like dandelions).
The truth is, coal generation was already in decline in the U.S. not because of climate-change regulations, but because of unadulterated free-market capitalism. Advances in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have simply made it much cheaper to make electricity from natural gas than from coal.
However, the new rules on power generation won’t be doing any favors for coal, which will require expensive carbon-capturing technologies in order to comply with the emissions cap. Both critics and supporters of the regulation agree on one thing: This will be the final blow to many proposed coal plants. The difference between a war on coal and a war on carbon is, in this case, largely a semantic one.
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