Earlier this month, another report, by the economics firm The Brattle Group, concluded that additional coal plant retirements expected over the next four years are "primarily due to changing market conditions, not environmental rule revisions, which have trended toward more lenient requirements and schedules."
"It's the market forces that are pushing [coal] out of the market," said Alan Beamon, director of electricity, coal, nuclear and renewables analysis for the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.
Government and industry projections don't indicate that coal is going to just go away, but most forecasts show production in Central Appalachia is going to drop dramatically over the next decade.
On Friday, new Energy Department data showed that coal produced 39 percent of U.S. electricity in August. That's up from a low of 32 percent in April, but "notably lower than the 50 percent average over the 1990-2010 period," the agency said.
At the same time, scientific studies have increasingly outlined the environmental damage caused by mountaintop removal mining. Burning coal is a major source of greenhouse gases, and report after report explains that power plant emissions are linked to respiratory illnesses and premature death. Over the past six years, coal miners have seen a series of major mining disasters, and government data indicates there's been a resurgence of black lung incidence and death.
A Harvard University study released in February 2011 found that fully accounting for coal's cost in environmental and public health damage would triple the cost of coal-generated electricity.
Four years ago, as a presidential candidate, Obama talked tough about coal. He famously explained that his policy for addressing climate change -- a cap-and-trade bill -- would "bankrupt" anyone who tried to build a coal-fired power plant without equipment to capture carbon dioxide emissions. And in his historic victory speech on election night in 2008, Obama listed a "planet in peril" as one of the nation's biggest challenges, along with "two wars" and "the worst financial crisis in a century."
Once in the White House, though, Obama and his team focused on passing a health-care reform bill. Climate legislation passed the House, but stalled in the Senate.
Empowered by U.S. Supreme Court and appeals court rulings on her agency's Clean Air Act authority, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson moved forward with a proposed rule to address carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. However, the proposal applies only to new facilities, not to plants already operating, under construction or in the permitting pipeline.
"Of course, reducing emissions from the power sector requires that we also set standards for the existing fleet of power plants, which are the main source of emissions currently," said Rachel Cleetus, a senior climate economist with the Union of Concerned Scienitsts.
Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, said the EPA proposal would have little effect, because market forces already have reduced the prospects that any new coal plants would be built.
"[The EPA] could have gone after existing coal-fired generation, but didn't," Taylor said in a commentary. "They essentially . . . did nothing: And this from an administration that had long argued that political opponents better come to the negotiating table and sign-on to a cap-and-trade bill lest the administration grow tired of talk and ram something through unilaterally."
On mountaintop removal, Obama also talked tough, addressing the issue in a meeting with regional news reporters just two months after taking office.
"I will tell you that there's been some pretty country up there that's been torn up pretty good," Obama said. "I think we have to balance the economic growth with good stewardship of the land God gave us."
The next day, the EPA announced its crackdown on mountaintop removal mining. Agency officials issued a plan for tougher permit reviews and, eventually, new water-quality guidance aimed specifically at Appalachian coal-mining operations.
"The tone of those documents clearly declared a war on coal," said Jamie Van Nostrand, an associate professor and director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law. "It was pretty clear that things were going to be different."
Van Nostrand said the EPA launched its mountaintop removal initiative without going through the normal rulemaking process, which would have given industry and environmental groups an opportunity for comment and hearings. While the EPA's permit reviews and guidance slowed new permit issuances to a trickle, eventually lawsuits brought by industry and by coal-friendly state officials succeeded in blocking the agency's efforts.
"They could have probably done this if you actually have a rulemaking," Van Nostrand said, "but you've got to go through that process."
Citizen groups had preferred all along for the EPA to go the rulemaking route, especially to reverse Bush administration changes to the Clean Water Act definition of "fill material," to stop extensive burial of streams with mountaintop removal waste.
The EPA has talked about the growing science that shows residents near mountaintop removal operations face increased risk of illness. But anti-mountaintop removal groups note that the administration has not taken action on that issue. Just last week, a coalition of groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for two new permits it issued without examining potential public health impacts.
"I would say that the Obama administration has taken some steps in the right direction, but should do more," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel with the group Earthjustice. "For their record, I would say well intentioned but needs to be more comprehensive, forceful and effective."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.