Individuals in Groups
The regulations released last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon emissions from new power plants are so clearly necessary — and have been in the works for years — that it's difficult to even think of them as somehow controversial. That is, unless, one continues to deny the existence of man-made climate change.
If you are a denier, well, there's not much to be said on the subject. It requires only that you ignore that global warming is happening at an unprecedented rate, that the heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide have been documented since the mid-19th century, and that oceans are warming, sea levels are rising and glaciers have been retreating to a record extent. Coal-fired power plants are a major contributor of greenhouse gases and, as the U.S. Supreme Court has already affirmed, the EPA has the authority to regulate those emissions as pollutants. For the agency to have ignored what is so obviously the most pressing environmental issue of our times would have been the real outrage.
But easily lost in the rule-making are two critical points. First, the EPA has not banned coal-fired power plants but has set stricter emissions standards. It's possible for a new plant to meet them, but it will require technology to capture and store carbon. At least four U.S. plants are either planned or currently under construction that will have such an ability. Second, these regulations are hardly the death-knell for coal — at least not in and of themselves. That industry faces many other pressing issues, from the other pollutants that burning coal produces, such as mercury and arsenic, to competition from natural gas. The rise of hydraulic fracturing has made natural gas a far more affordable alternative fuel for power generation, particularly as it produces less carbon. That's a big reason why the outlook for U.S. coal, at least for domestic use, was lousy long before the EPA