EPA Announces New Carbon Regulations: What You Need to Know

Coal power plant

Cross-posted from We Are Power Shift.

On Tuesday, the EPA officially announced its long-awaited rules on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants — the first ever in U.S. history. According to the standards, new plants can emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per magawatt of electricity produced. Natural gas plants fall within this limit; coal plants do not.

So what does this mean for coal? At the moment, not much. The key word is new — plants already running are exempt from the regulations. In a move that startled climate advocates, EPA Admin Lisa Jackson declared that there were “no plans to address existing plants,” which, of course, produce the vast majority of the power sector’s carbon emissions.

But here’s the catch: The EPA may be legally obligated to regulate existing coal plants. Grist‘s David Roberts explains,

Once something is deemed a pollutant under the Clean Air Act… then it must be regulated under Section 111 of the act….

Section 111b governs new sources. That’s what was issued today. But when EPA regulates under 111b, that triggers a legal obligation for it also to regulate existing sources under 111d.

So a carbon rule for existing sources should appear sometime in the future, but, as far as the Administration is concerned, there’s no point in talking up more regulations until something’s actually on the table. Thus, “no plans,” at least until after the election. (Of course, under a Republican president, the EPA, if it even existed, would undoubtedly scrap all carbon limits.)

We’ve still taken a step forward. The new EPA carbon rules help the clean energy effort by effectively outlawing new coal-fired plants. In order to meet the requirements, coal plants would have to capture and store their CO2 emissions, and carbon sequestration isn’t available yet on a large scale.

[youtube http://youtu.be/uFJVbdiMgfM]

Interestingly, the coal industry built an entire lobbying campaign around this technology, dubbed “clean coal,” and politicians, including Obama, picked up the term becase they like alliteration. But when faced with actually implementing it, the industry people balk. Apparently, we should keep using coal because coal is clean, but we can’t require coal to be clean because clean coal, in the words of a Peabody Energy spokesman, “doesn’t exist as a commercial technology.” Thanks for clearning that up!

The bottom line: As long as the rule holds, the climate movement doesn’t have to worry about stopping new coal plants. Instead, activists can focus on transitioning old coal energy to renewable sources. We are nearer than ever to a coal-free America.

[Image: Dmitri Klimenko]

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Pro-MTR Dirty Water Act is Moving Through Congress

A picture of a mountaintop removal siteWork co...

Image via Wikipedia

[RYSE cross-post.]

Right now, one of the best hopes for ending mountaintop removal mining lies in the EPA’s power to regulate water pollution. As it stands, Lisa Jackson (or another EPA executive) could, with a few strokes of her pen, take dramatic steps toward ending the cultural and environmental attack on Appalachia.

But a bill moving through the House (it just passed out of committee) is set to change that. Sponsored by John Mica (R-FL), the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act would give states, rather than the EPA, the final authority in water quality standards and Clean Water Act permits.

Here’s why that is important: There is a good chance that mountaintop removal mining is actually illegal because the process requires dumping mining waste in streams. The Bush Administration made these valley fills easier by revising the Clean Water Act back in 2002, but as Legal Planet explains,

Even with that change, large-scale valley fills would seem to violate the Clean Water Act’s prohibition on the issuance of federal permits that would lead to a violation of state water quality standards, and the Guidelines for section 404 permits developed by the Corps and EPA, which require that impacts on aquatic ecosystems be avoided and minimized to the maximum extent practicable.

Whether or not the practice is technically legal, mountaintop mining cannot be done without a permit to literally bury streams, and the EPA has the authority to veto those permits. The agency used this power in January when it blocked the Spruce Mine project in West Virginia.

The Dirty Water Act of 2011, as it’s been called, would transfer that authority to the states. This might seem like a good idea, since most Americans–including most West Virginians–oppose mountaintop removal. But the coal industry has essentially suspended democracy in Appalachia, flexing its monetary muscle to keep officials on its side. So turning clean water regulation over to states is almost the same as eliminating it altogether.

What you can do: Contact your Representative and ask him to vote no on HR 2018. iLoveMountains.org has a web form and sample letter to help you out.

History and Activism Meet at Blair Mountain

March on Blair Mountain to protest mountaintop-removal mining begins June 4.

This post was written by Nell Gagnon. It originally appeared here

Here’s something the history books left out: In 1921, more than 10,000 West Virginia coal miners rose up in resistance to coal companies who refused to allow miners to unionize. It was the largest armed insurrection in the United States since the Civil War. This uprising, which took place in Logan County, West Virginia, is known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. The miners were met with a private army of police funded by coal companies, who employed, among other things, World War One planes to drop bombs and gas.

The Battle of Blair Mountain was five days long and bloody, leaving dozens of miners dead and many more imprisoned. Despite an impressive resistance effort, in the end the battle was lost upon the intervention of the United States army, who supported the coal industry. Blair was just one of many struggles to resist the oppression and hegemony of coal companies throughout the long history of mining in Appalachia, but it was unsurpassed in size and significance.

Big coal did all it could to prevent miners from unionizing and to silence their demands for fair wages and decent working conditions. In the late 1800s, the coal industry set up company towns throughout Appalachia, a fundamentally feudal system where companies owned all town establishments and paid workers in company scrip. Tactics included intimidation, harassment, physical violence—even murder. Coal companies hired gun thugs and strikebreakers to threaten miners, ensuring that they wouldn’t organize.

Today, coal companies like Massey Energy, now Alpha Energy, continue to exploit workers and ravage the environment through newer mining practices including mountain top removal. This devastating form of “extreme strip mining” entails literally blowing up mountains in order to extract the seams of coal within. Mountains are stripped of trees and topsoil, and finally detonated. Not only does this process destroy the mountain itself, the “overburden”—toxic chemicals used as part of the extraction process— flow into nearby water sources, contaminating water in entire region. The result is deadly both to wildlife and to human inhabitants anywhere near a Mountain Top Removal site.

Studies and statistics have verified this, yet the coal companies continue, as they always have, to neglect the rights of miners and miners’ families, putting profit ahead of human lives. Indeed, big coal has proven to be, again and again, hostile to Appalachian communities, culture, and land. And as of right now, over five hundred mountains have been destroyed by this egregious process.

Appalachia is the second most bio-diverse region on the planet. West Virginia’s resplendent mountain crests and lush, forested ridges are breathtaking, and Blair Mountain is no exception. But Blair Mountain is exceptional in its history—the history of more than ten thousand miners coming together to combat the brutish ways of the coal companies. This is the history of a bonafide peoples’ resistance, defending their land and very lives from corporate exploitation. But the stories of the Battle of Blair are slowly fading into the past. The destruction of Blair Mountain is a death sentence for this rich history. When Blair Mountain is blown up, a chapter in American labor history is torn out and forever lost. The coal companies will have robbed the people of Appalachia of still one more thing: their history.

On June 4, hundreds of people from Appalachia and all over the country will come together to demand the rights of people and ecology.  We implore that Blair Mountain be saved from the coal companies who wish to destroy it, as they have done to so many mountains—and people—in the name of profit.

We will march for five days, starting in Marmet, WV, and arriving at last at Blair Mountain, where we will proclaim this mountain’s right to exist. Standing united against the exploitation and profiteering of big business will be miners and local citizens, activists, students, academics, and environmentalists.

Losing Blair to mountain top removal will allow the coal companies to once more devour and nullify the history of Appalachian peoples’ resistance, in an effort to eradicate it altogether. The March on Blair Mountain is a call for justice, when there has been so little of it over the past century and a half in Appalachia.

The March seeks to preserve the historical Blair Mountain, put an end to the disastrous practice of mountain top removal, and, like the Battle of Blair, to strengthen labor and community rights. All are welcome to come and join together in this fight for human rights and environmental justice.

Obama Admin Announces Massive Coal Mining Expansion

Interior Dept.’s plan could increase U.S. carbon emissions by one-half.

Cross-posted from RYSE.

If you were worried that the U.S. might cease to be a world leader in climate pollution, the Obama Administration has just put your fears to rest. Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazarannounced a massive increase in Wyoming coal mining — 2.3 billion tons, to be exact. When this coal is burned, it could increase U.S. climate pollution by over 50 percent, according toGrist. In a joint statement, WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife explained,

When burned, the coal threatens to release more than 3.9 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, equal to the annual emissions from 300 coal-fired power plants…. Salazar’s announcement is a stark contrast to his call for clean energy… in today’s press conference, Secretary Salazar announced Interior’s intent to authorize more than 12,000 megawatts of renewable energy by the end of next year…. Yet in opening the door for 2.35 billion tons of coal mining, Salazar’s announcement effectively enables more than 300,000 megawatts of coal-fired energy — 30 times more dirty energy development than renewable energy.

It seems that the Administration’s strategy is to hang a bright green sign out front, while letting fossil companies in through the back door. Obama didn’t come up with this idea on his own, though. Companies like BP and Chevron like to advertise their modest investments in clean energy, but their big money goes toward fossil fuels (and disinformation campaigns to promote fossil fuels). Well, Mr. President, here’s a tip: If you want climate hawks and enviros on your side, oil giants are the wrong crowd to hang with.

Indeed, it’s looking as if Obama is not actually that determined to build a more sustainable country. For many greens, that is hard to accept. Obama was supposed to be our president. He was backed by the biggest environmental groups and was swept into office largely by an unprecedented turnout of young voters. And, to be fair, he probably is one of our greenest presidents. His Recovery Act included $70 billion for renewables and efficiency, and he’s made some moving speeches in favor of clean energy. He also supported the late climate bill, although he chose to fight for healthcare reform instead. In addition, smaller changes throughout the government have generally reversed the anti-environmentalism of the Bush era.

But such progress could be easily outweighed by expanding fossil fuels. In his State of the Union address, Obama himself set a goal of 80 percent clean energy by 2035, comparing the green movement to the Space Race (“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment”). How does Salazar’s massive push for coal fit in with that plan?  Even Joe Romm says that question “may have no good answer.” Grist offers one explanation: The Administration can’t wait to sell China all the coal it can burn.

So do environmentalists need a new president? It’s looking that way, but the solution isn’t as simple as finding a greener Democratic challenger. If the GOP keeps moving to the right, there’s a very real possibility of a Tea Party favorite running on the Republican ticket in 2012. Someone like Newt Gingrich (who wants to chuck the EPA) or Michele Bachman (who thinks CO2 is “harmless” and global warming is “all voodoo”) would be infinitely worse than Obama. The point is that we have to be careful.

That doesn’t mean we should accept the Administration’s irresponsible decisions without complaint. As Glenn Hurowitz writes,

… if Obama’s coal and oil blitz doesn’t spur large protests at the White House, the environmental movement might as well pack its bags, rub on some patchouli, and head to the mountains (at least until the bulldozers come). At the end of the day, if we are to succeed, we will need to earn the respect of our friends and foes alike, and that starts with hitting the ballot box and the streets.

What’s your take? Has the man who promised “change we can believe in” stopped believing in change himself?

Image: Joshua Lawton

EPA Vetoes Permit for Arch Coal’s Spruce Mine – A Historic Victory for Appalachia

Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia would have been one of the largest mountaintop removal projects in Appalachia, destroying over 2,000 acres of forest, burying miles of streams, and polluting watersheds. But, in a historic decision, the EPA has vetoed the mine’s Clean Water Act permit.

This is the first time the EPA has issued a veto on a project that has already been permitted. (The mine was approved during the Bush era and has been held up in courts since.)

Speaking of courts, I’m not a legal expert (someone who is may want to comment), but it’s hard for me see why it would even be possible to give a “Clean Water” permit for a project like this. According to the EPA, the Spruce mine would have buried more than 35,000 feet of streams under 110 cubic yards of mining waste. Obviously, this would eliminate all forms of life from the streams. It would also poison downstream ecosystems and communities.

If a Deepwater Horizon-style accident caused destruction like that, we’d call it an environmental disaster. Conservation volunteers would try to rescue wildlife. Nonprofits would raise money to help the impacted communities. The tragedy would be front-page news. Someone might even call Anderson Cooper.

But the fact is that mountains are being blown up, streams are being buried, and entire regions are being poisoned on purpose every day. In a way, that makes mountaintop removal mining worse than the Gulf oil spill–at least BP doesn’t dump crude oil in the Gulf intentionally.

The EPA’s veto came on the heels of a year-long campaign by Rainforest Action Network and smaller anti-MTR groups. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson received thousands of emails and hundreds of phone calls urging her to reject the Spruce mine. And in September 2010, activists dumped half a ton of Appalachian dirt on the steps of the EPA headquarters in order to highlight their message: “Don’t let King Coal dump on Appalachia.”

Of course, the decision wasn’t completely due to activist efforts. A number of EPA reports and independent studies agreed that the mining project would cause inexcusable environmental damage. But reports like that can easily be (and often are) swept under the rug, if no one draws public attention to them. At the very least, it seems that direct-action crusaders (and, ahem, green bloggers) aren’t wasting their time.

Keep an eye out for more stories like this in the coming months. The movement to protect Appalachia is, if you will excuse the coal-related metaphor, just picking up steam.