Yesterday, in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Legislature’s “Coal Caucus” invited representatives of the coal industry to tell them why they oppose the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposal to reduce carbon pollution from coal and other fossil fuels. We have heard the talking points before, often from a pundit decrying Obama’s “war on coal,” and they don’t get any better with age.
Industry analysts and insiders have been discussing the decline in coal for years and, while EPA is often blamed, many admit that even without the EPA, coal is less and less competitive. The Energy Information Agency tallies “all employees engaged in production, preparation, processing, development, maintenance, repair shop, or yard work at mining operations, including office workers,” and PA was down to 8,382 coal jobs in 2013—an over 6 percent decline from the prior year. Those at the hearing continued blaming EPA and spun tales of more doom and gloom for the future. For example, it was claimed yet again that the EPA’s proposed rule would reduce Pennsylvania’s coal fleet by nearly 70 percent and that this would jeopardize 36,000 jobs. Compared to the actual number of coal jobs in the state, the job loss numbers are clearly inflated. It’s also common practice for the industry to blame all plant closures on the EPA, no matter how tenuous that claim, but this is an even worse exaggeration. I wrote a blog post in August 2014 detailing the mental gymnastics that are required to conclude 70 percent of our capacity will be retired. In short, it assumes that the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will craft a plan where the only item they will take any credit for is the shuttering of coal plants and attendant replacement gas plants. That means deciding not to take allowable credit for our Act 129 energy efficiency program, nothing for our existing Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, and nothing for maintaining our fleet of nuclear power plants. It also means doing nothing new to improve efficiency at those plants and not even considering other alternatives such as multi-state compliance options. Why on earth would DEP craft such a plan? Simple: They wouldn’t. When folks like the PA Coal Alliance repeat that number, they are quick to claim that the source of the crazy 70-percent number was DEP itself. To be precise, that number was often repeated by Vince Brisini, who was a Deputy Secretary for DEP during the Corbett administration. In discussions I had with Vince on the topic, he justified the claim by assuming courts would eventually throw out all the parts of the proposed Clean Power Plan that would allow credit for any measure other than shutting down coal plants. Even if the courts were to agree with him, the EPA would be legally required to adjust their targets accordingly. There is no reasonable way to get to the number he was claiming—Vince was simply wrong. (Having left DEP, Vince is back working for the industry and testified at the hearing.) We are a long way from seeing DEP’s plan on this issue. The EPA is expected to finalize its rule shortly and DEP may have two years or more to craft a state plan. DEP Secretary John Quigley has made it clear that he agrees with Gov. Tom Wolf on the importance of protecting Pennsylvania coal. In spite of its decline, coal is going to be part of Pennsylvania's energy generation mix for years to come and the Clean Power Plan isn’t going to change that. Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.