The War On Coal

Activists cite public-health hazards in a new campaign against coal. Opponents say cleaner is too costly

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The War on Coal

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The campaign comes at a time when the world is becoming more coal-intensive. Global coal consumption grew by 7.6% last year; 30% of the world's energy now comes from coal, up from 25% five years ago. The rise is driven by emerging economies like China, the world's biggest coal consumer, which nearly tripled its coal use over the past decade. That hasn't helped coal-fighting efforts in the West, where stalling economies are struggling to keep up with gangbuster growth in China and other emerging markets. Coal exports from the U.S., the world's second largest coal producer and consumer, to Asian countries more than tripled last year, a boon for the industry. U.S. dependency on coal-fired electricity continues at home, which could result in higher energy costs and job losses if air-quality regulations are tightened. King Coal--still the cheapest source of electricity--is entrenched in the global energy system.

The Sierra Club, one of the country's oldest and largest green groups, with 1.4 million members, has already found early success fighting the growth of coal on a shoestring budget. So far, the club says, its Beyond Coal campaign has helped block more than 150 proposed coal plants across the country, using legal action and local opinion. With Bloomberg's help, it's stepping up the battle, seeking to shut existing coal plants like Fisk in Chicago.

The industry is also facing challenges from Washington. In July the EPA issued final rules on air pollution that crosses state borders, forcing power plants to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide--two pollutants linked to smog and health problems--over the next few years. In the coming months, the EPA is scheduled to finalize regulations on mercury emissions, coal ash and greenhouse-gas emissions. Those regulations will provide tangible benefits for air quality and health; the new cross-state-border rule alone will prevent an estimated 34,000 premature deaths a year, according to the EPA. "No community should bear the burden of another community's polluters or be powerless to act against air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses," says EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Pick Your Poison

"Is there a war on coal?" asks American Electric Power (AEP) CEO Michael Morris. "I think that's fair to say." Morris' opinion matters. AEP is one of the largest and most coal-dependent utilities in the country, and the company has not suffered the coming EPA regulations quietly. In June, AEP announced that it would shut down five older coal-fired plants by the end of 2014--the plants collectively generate 6,000 MW of electricity--in part because it would be too expensive to upgrade them to meet the new EPA rules. Though a few of those plants had already been scheduled to be decommissioned, Morris says the rapid pace of the rules--utilities will have only three years to meet the tighter emissions standard on cross-border pollution--will cost the company billions of dollars and hundreds of jobs.

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