CN Factoid #2: Why EPA Is Not Mandating Cleaner Coal

Last week I passed on a recent U.S. Department of Energy study calculating just how cheap it should be to zero-out emissions of CO2 from coal-fired power plants (CN Factoid #1: Cleaning Up Coal is Cheap). Now it’s time, as promised, to follow up with why the Bush Administration is not forcing use of Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle or ‘IGCC’ power plants, which excel at capturing CO2.

The short answer is that the Bush Administration has opposed the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2 from coal. That ideological impediment is on the way out thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in April that “The harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized” and that the EPA must therefore consider regulating CO2.

The longer answer is that the Bush EPA has followed neither the spirit or the letter of the Clean Air Act. EPA should be mandating IGCC technology for new coal-fired power plants, irrespective of its position on CO2, because IGCC plants also excel at capturing more conventional pollutants such as smog-forming NOx, sulfur and especially mercury. As the Clean Air Act stipulates that new power plants must be built using the best pollution control technology available, new coal plants dirtier than IGCCs should thus be technology-non-grata.

But when officials in Illinois, Montana and New Mexico began requiring consideration of IGCC technology when issuing air permits for new power plants, EPA issued a policy blocking such consideration. That prompted the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based environmental consulting firm, to sue EPA on procedural grounds. In a settlement reached last year EPA dropped the anti-IGCC policy, but the agency is still a ways from becoming an agent for positive change.

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