Supreme Court limits EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.  It won’t save coal plants.

Supreme Court limits EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. It won’t save coal plants.

The American coal industry is in a long-term decline, and the recent Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency the case won’t change that.

The case centers on a 2015 EPA regulation called Clean Power Plan aimed at limiting greenhouse gases from power plants. The rule never took effect, as it was it was stopped by the Supreme Court in 2016then replaced under President Donald Trump with a weaker regulationwhich in turn was dismissed by federal court in 2021

However, a 6-3 decision along party lines drastically limits EPA’s ability to make new regulations that have broad economic or policy implications. That will likely include rules like the Biden administration’s proposal to regulate emissions from the energy sector, which is expected to be released later this summer.

The court’s decision is part of the coordinated a years-long legal effort by conservatives to undermine federal regulations. But weakening climate change policy is not enough to put King Coal back on the throne, a fact the industry has begun to acknowledge. “There is no question that US thermal coal is a challenging market and one that is in secular decline,” said Glenn Kellow, CEO of Peabody Energy. the largest coal mining company in the USA, during earnings in the past year.

The forces behind coal’s decline are likely to become stronger in the coming years, but its decline could still slow as broader shocks to the economy hamper its competitors. Coal will likely continue to lose ground, but it may not be enough to meet the United States’ climate change goals.

Economics hurts coal more than regulations

The reason coal keeps losing ground has more to do with economics than regulations. And the Supreme Court cannot change the fact that most of the nation’s coal fleet is too old, too expensive and too inefficient to continue operating indefinitely.

In the US, coal provides approx 21 percent of electricity yet it does more than half of all carbon dioxide emissions from electricity productionmaking it one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.

Its share in the energy sector peaked in 2013 and has been declining ever since. The workforce in the coal industry experienced an even more dramatic decline, falling below 40,000 employees in 2022a tiny fraction of its all-time high from a century ago.

US coal mining employment, in thousands of workers.
Center for Global Energy Policy/Columbia University

However, coal production continues grew for most of the 20th century as mechanization and automation allowed fewer workers to mine more, and production peaked in 2006. But by 2020, US coal production had fallen to its lowest levels since 1965.

There are several factors behind this. Coal-burning power plants are aging, and many have been built 1970s and 1980s and is now approaching retirement. This year, it is planned to retire 14.9 gigawatts of electricity, with 85 percent off it comes from a coal-fired generator. Ten years ago, the energy sector was the largest source of greenhouse gases in the country. Today it’s in second place – 25 percent versus transportation’s 27 percent – ​​simply because of that coal decline.

Another big factor in the decline of coal is competition, mainly cheap natural gas hydraulic fracturing during the past decade. While natural gas has grown to provide most of the nation’s energy, solar and wind are also racing upward. Renewable energy sources are now the fastest growing source of energy in the USA. The sector, including hydropower, accounted for 20 percent of production in 2021, and the US Energy Information Administration expects rise to 24 percent by 2023. Wind provides 9.2 percent of electricity, and solar energy 2.8 percent. These generators will make up the majority utility growth in the coming years. In some parts of the world, the building new renewable energy generators cost less rather than running existing coal-fired power plants.

Some regulations also accelerated the decline in coal production, namely the Obama-era targeted rule mercury and sulfur emissions from coal-fired plants. Back in 2011, when the regulation came out, the EPA didn’t yet have climate regulations for existing power plants, but coal-fired generators would have to improve pollution controls. It just wasn’t worth keeping at the time the oldest plants in the country working with expensive new equipment when gas was already much cheaper. That rule has been postponed Supreme Court in 2015 and which Trump canceled in 2018but it still accelerated the closure of some coal-fired power plants.

Coal retirement has only accelerated under Trump — despite his cabinet being packed with coal supporters, including Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and Trump’s EPA chief. Yet even with so many industry advocates in power, the Trump administration could not stop the inevitable. Despite the campaign to subsidize the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, the largest in the western United States the power plant and its nearby coal mine remain closed in 2020

The question now is how fast coal will decline

Although the overall trend is downward, coal recorded a resurgence during the Covid-19 pandemic due to rising natural gas prices. This slowing of the decline in coal production only makes it harder for the US to meet its climate change goals. Last year, President Joe Biden pledged to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 52 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030, but the US instead, carbon dioxide pollution increased.

Supreme Court limits EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.  It won’t save coal plants.

Coal’s share of electricity production rose briefly during the Covid-19 pandemic.
US Energy Information Administration

So economics alone is not a reliable way to achieve climate goals, and the rate of switching off fossil fuel generators will have to accelerate. Still, the Sierra Club counts 173 remaining coal-fired power plants in the US without retirement plans. Some plant operators even have sought rescueand utility companies propped up money-losing coal plants customer price increases.

If the US has any chance of drastically reducing climate pollution by 2030, every one of these power plants would have to be retired by then.

Activists are certainly trying. The Sierra Club, through its Beyond Coal campaign, works to accelerate the decline of coal, presenting the case at local hearings and public meetings that coal energy is dangerous and harmful. The campaign led to the closing of coal-fired power plants across the US and thwarted new plants.

However, greenhouse gas emissions are not falling fast enough, and if environmental regulations are weakened, the dirtiest sources of energy may be held longer. With energy prices rising and inflation rising during an election year, addressing climate change has become a lower priority. Course entry requires a deliberate set of policies, such as a clean electricity standard, but Congress is unlikely to pass such measures this year. With its recent ruling limiting the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, the Supreme Court shuts down another important avenue for limiting global warming. But for America’s coal industry, it’s too little too late.



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