President Obama’s recent announcement of increased environmental regulation on the fossil fuel-powered electric generation industry has added an unimaginable layer of challenge to an all-too-beleaguered industry. In fact, the proposed rules also come at a time when the nation as a whole cannot sustain the economic burden that will result in the wake of his decision; a decision that he has made outside of the authority of Congress.
The industry has been grappling with the Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS) for several years now.
By April 2015, an estimated 57,000 megawatts of fossil fuel-generated power will be eliminated. That’s the equivalent of more than 74 million residential homes’ power needs. For perspective, there are approximately 55,000 residences in Cambria County alone. The PC term for this action is “retired” electrical generation.
To the 187,000 people nationwide who will lose their jobs, it is called “shut down.”
I would be disingenuous if I would not mention that the economy over the past four years is almost an equal partner in the demise of the domestic coal-fired electric generation industry. However, presidential administrations have some effect on economy, so we have come full circle.
Now, on the heels of the MATS rule, the president has announced additional onerous regulations of coal-fired electric generating stations. Let’s call this action what it is – economic Armageddon, an intrusion of government into the private sector, jeopardizing the national electrical grid, and arguably a matter of national security.
Nervously, some of the utility operators announced July 19 on network news stations that the Middle Atlantic States had survived a significant heat wave that week. It appeared as if there was some question as to whether capacity would indeed keep up with demand.
There also appeared to be grave concern that the grid infrastructure would withstand the heat wave.
What happens in the summer of 2014 or 2015 (post-MATS deadline)? Where will those 74 million homes get their power during that heat wave?
I have not read or been made aware of any new sources of electricity coming online to replace even a fraction of the 57,000 megawatts that will be shut down. There is a lot of talk about natural gas, but to the best of my knowledge, only one plant is even close to breaking ground in all of western Pennsylvania. “Close” meaning they have received local government approval for construction – not the state or federal approvals, and certainly not the battery of environmental activists’ lawsuits that will
So let’s put about a 3-5 year time stamp on that plant, if it prevails.
Wind power in Pennsylvania, or nationally for that matter, is not the comprehensive answer to the closing of these coal stations, either. Quite frankly, there is just not enough wind capacity yet, and windmills’ availability during critical times on the grid is a bit questionable.
Speaking of Pennsylvania, we stand to suffer a devastating blow from MATS and its successor from an environmental perspective.
Pennsylvania is home to the largest number of waste coal-fired electric generating stations in the nation. Waste coal – bony to the folks in the west, gob in the east – has been destroying our water quality and environment for more than 100 years.
These waste-coal stations were constructed under the most stringent air-pollution control laws that existed in the 1990s, nationwide. In certain cases, such as mercury, these stations have set the national benchmark for all others to follow and have even been hailed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in written testimony as best of the best.
Unfortunately a dragnet has been cast over all fossil facilities – from those that added pollution control technology to those that have not reinvested a dollar into the environment.
I have shared a few of my opinions in this column from two personal perspectives. I am the fifth generation of my family to be employed in the coal industry in Cambria County. From great-great grandfather William Simmers, who was superintendent of five mines in Frugality and Glasgow in the early 1880s to my father, Thomas, who was with Bethlehem Mines Corp. and later the Mine Safety and Health Administration, I have a fierce loyalty to this industry that built a nation.
Also, I have a fierce loyalty to my country. This epic and ill-thought out Keynesian attack on the fossil fuel electric generation industry is more than I can bear. We have already accomplished much in the way of environmental stewardship. Let the rest of the world catch up, and we’ll get back together in about 15 years.
Dennis Simmers of Ebensburg has been involved in environmental engineering in fossil fuel-powered electric generation for the past 19 years. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Indiana University.