CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Just as our economy is beginning to climb out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a variety of new rules that will inevitably lead to large-scale unemployment and massive rate hikes over the next several years.
In March, EPA proposed nearly 1,000 pages of rules for coal-based power plants covering mercury and other hazardous emissions from both new and existing sources. These new rules will affect more than a thousand coal-based generating units. While the UMWA believes that clean air goals can and should be met, the Clean Air Act currently imposes unrealistic timetables for compliance.
The Clean Air Act's deadline for meeting the new regulations is just 36 months after the rules are finalized in November. EPA can grant a one-year extension on a case-by-case basis. While some generating units will be retrofitted with additional pollution controls to meet the standards, hundreds of smaller and older units will simply be closed.
Tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in the utility, coal and transportation sectors. Hundreds of communities will suffer as their tax bases shrink with the closure of nearby utility plants. Industrial states that were hit hard by the recession and still suffering from high unemployment will take another, needless hit.
To make matters worse, the new source limits EPA is proposing are so stringent that no new state-of-the-art power plant equipped with highly efficient scrubbers and other pollution controls could meet each of the multiple standards. Some of the new source standards are below the detection limits of current monitoring and testing equipment.
The combination of unrealistic compliance deadlines and unachievable standards will pose severe strains on utilities, workers and ratepayers' pocketbooks. EPA itself estimates the cost of the new rules at $11 billion annually, roughly twice the cost of current regulations reducing sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions contributing to acid rain and urban smog.
Congress must act to prevent this potential massive disruption to jobs, families and communities throughout the United States. The Clean Air Act was last amended in 1990. Many of the provisions that are forcing EPA's rulemaking agenda are more than 20 years old. Technology for using coal to generate electricity has vastly improved since then, and many more improvements are in the pipeline. It's time to recognize that.
The UMWA has long supported rules that encourage utilities to employ available pollution control technologies, but we cannot support regulations that will force widespread retirements of power plants and involuntary unemployment of workers.
Several independent analyses indicate that an average 44,000 megawatts of capacity -- about equal to the total coal generating capacity in the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania -- will be lost as result from the implementation of EPA's rules.
The primary source of alternative electric power is higher-cost natural gas. We are learning that natural gas produced from shale formations is not as "clean" as its supporters claim. We know that if natural gas generation replaces coal, many family budgets will be in even worse shape. With gasoline prices heading past $4 per gallon in many areas, this is no time to raise monthly utility bills for low- and fixed-income families.
It is time for Congress to take stock of the emissions reductions and air quality improvements since it last amended the Clean Air Act in 1990. The air quality objectives EPA seeks can be achieved at lower cost to ratepayers and with less risk of widespread job losses if the rules are streamlined and phased in over a longer compliance period.
We need to retire older power plants and replace them with new advanced coal generation, creating jobs and reducing emissions in the process. We do not need inflexible rules that will close hundreds of generating units over the next four years, disenfranchise the future of advanced coal technologies and our nation's largest fossil energy reserves, and increase unemployment in struggling rural economies.
Roberts is international president of the United Mine Workers of America.