All posts tagged 'coal'

Report on Carbon Capture and Storage from the House

February 20, 2014 22:37
by J. Wylie Donald

Would an 80% premium steer you away from an energy source that was low-carbon, naturally abundant in the United States, not subject to the vicissitudes of weather, incapable of nuclear meltdown and accompanied by a well-established infrastructure?  Suppose the premium was only 40%?

Hearings last week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation explored that topic in connection with the development of carbon capture and storage technology. In prepared remarks Dr. Julio Friedmann, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Clean Coal with the Department of Energy, delivered an update on the status of CCS.

Coal fuels approximately 40% of the nation's energy needs.  "Because it is abundant, the clean and efficient use of coal is a key part of President Obama's all-of-the-above energy strategy."  A central component of the President's program is the Clean Coal Research Program, which " is designed to enhance [the nation's] energy security and reduce environmental concerns over the future use of coal by developing a portfolio of cutting-edge clean coal technologies."  To accomplish this the Department of Energy is focusing on research to capture carbon dioxide directly from the fuel stream (pre-combustion), from the stack gas (post-combustion) and from combustion in nearly pure oxygen (oxy-combustion, which yields nearly pure CO2 and water, which are easily separated). 

Dr. Friedmann went on to discuss the Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships, which are investigating the viability of CCS projects in a variety of circumstances.  "Together, the Partnerships form a network of capability, knowledge, and infrastructure that will help enable geologic storage technology to play a role in the clean energy economy. They represent regions encompassing 97 percent of coal-fired CO2 emissions, 97 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, 96 percent of the total land mass, and essentially all the geologic storage sites that can potentially be available for geologic carbon storage.”

Last, Dr. Friedmann addressed the commercialization of CCS.  This has two components:  the operation of CCS facilities, and the utilization of the captured CO2.  The idea behind utilization in activities such as enhanced oil recovery and algae production is to "provide a technology bridge" which can smooth the  " transition to the deployment of the large-scale, stand-alone geologic sequestration operations that will ultimately be needed to achieve the much larger emissions reductions required ..."  As for those operations, Dr. Friedmann acknowledged dozens of projects, including 5 he listed by name, where CCS is being tested in commercial environments.

But the real interest of the committee, at least as reported in the trade press, was in cost. As reported  in Power and Power Engineering International,  Dr. Friedman  advised that implementing CCS "looks something like a 70% or 80% increase on the wholesale price of electricity."  Second generation technologies could cut that in half. But half is still a 40% increase.

Some might pull the plug on CCS right now.  If it is going to raise the price by 40%, that is simply too much.  To our mind, however, that is antediluvian thinking.  Regulation of carbon dioxide emissions is already happening. Climate change is not taking a wait-and-see approach. Inexorably the earth warms, the oceans rise, the world of yesterday is not the world of tomorrow. CCS has a place at the energy banquet. 

Further, before turning off CCS, it is useful to consider the costs of the alternatives.  The Energy Information Administration has calculated the "levelized" cost of various energy sources. "Levelized cost is often cited as a convenient summary measure of the overall competiveness of different generating technologies. It represents the per-kilowatthour cost (in real dollars) of building and operating a generating plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle."  Two things relevant here come out of the EIA table.  First, among dispatchable power (i.e., power that can respond when it is needed), with or without CCS, the most cost-effective power source is natural gas.  Second, when non-dispatchable power is included, even with CCS, coal is more cost-effective than offshore wind and both photovoltaic and thermal solar. 

In other words, if the issue is solely cost, coal loses to natural gas and the effect of CCS does not change the outcome.  If the issues are non-cost values, then coal with CCS comes to the table with green credentials, high power density, dispatchable output, good jobs, national security bona fides, and installed infrastructure, many of which coal's renewable competition cannot match. 

Carbon Dioxide | Regulation | Utilities

Act II at the Obama EPA: Gina McCarthy (is predicted) To Take the Helm

March 1, 2013 00:43
by J. Wylie Donald


The President gave an indication of his environmental focus in his inaugural address, and then again in his state of the union speech. The focus would be on climate change. 

Central to that focus would be the EPA Adminstrator, but that would not be Lisa Jackson who tendered her resignation at the end of 2012.  If Washington gossip is any guide, Ms. Jackson's replacement will be Gina McCarthy, the current head of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation.

We went looking to see if we could draw a bead on where Ms. McCarthy might lead EPA.  We found a recent speech and it was directly on point. On February 21, Ms. McCarthy addressed an audience at the Georgetown Law Center at a conference on Climate Change and Energy Policy. (The conference was videotaped. Ms. McCarthy has the podium from about 4:50 to 5:30 if you are interested.)  

Ms. McCarthy has a reputation of being something of a pragmatist. Her talk was consistent with that. A brief summary might be:  Climate change is here and we have to deal with it, but in addressing carbon dioxide there can be great benefits from doing so in the form of reducing pollution, increasing efficiency and empowering communities.

Pollution reductions will come in at least three forms. First, if more renewable energy sources are developed, there will be less emissions. Second, if production and use is made more efficient there will be less emissions. Third, if production is focused on fossil fuels that emit less pollutants when burned (that is, not coal), there will be less emissions.  We note that this strategy is already at work.  The growth of wind and solar power has been meteoric.  Ms. McCarthy promoted electric cars, which are far more efficient than gasoline-powered ones (although she ignored compressed natural gas vehicles, which are low emission and have some compelling advantages over electric cars).  And we have covered before  the catastrophe for coal signaled by the proposed Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, which forecasts not a single new coal plant through 2030.

Significantly, or perhaps not, she did not mention fracking and the phenomenal recent growth in natural gas production.  That was surprising.  A recent Harvard Magazine article  summarized the pollution and greenhouse gas effects of the natural gas bonanza: 

The shift from coal to gas in the electricity sector has also yielded an environmental bonus—a significant reduction in emissions of CO2, because CO2 emissions per unit of electricity generated using coal are more than double those produced using gas. … [T]he U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that domestic emissions of CO2 during the first quarter of 2012 fell to the lowest level recorded since 1992. An ancillary benefit of the coal-to-gas switch has been a significant reduction in emissions of sulfur dioxide, the cause of acid rain, because many of the older coal-burning plants selectively idled by the price-induced fuel switch were not equipped to remove this pollutant from their stack gases.


Efficiency pervaded her remarks. A striking number is the $1.7 trillion she stated automobile fuel efficiency standards had saved consumers at the pump. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. EPA will help Americans make buildings, processes and communities more efficient.  According to Ms. McCarthy the EPA Climate Showcase Communities saved $19 million per year based in large part on efficiency.

We are somewhat troubled by the “eye of the beholder” syndrome exhibited here.  Certainly consumers saved money at the pump.  But they spent more at the car dealer.  How did they fare overall?  The answer depends on how long they owned their car and the price of gas.  According to research in 2012 by TrueCar.com for the New York Times, at $4/gallon “[e]xcept for two hybrids, the Prius and Lincoln MKZ, and the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI, the added cost of the fuel-efficient technologies is so high that it would take the average driver many years — in some cases more than a decade — to save money over comparable new models with conventional internal-combustion engines.”  

Ms. McCarthy’s vision of empowerment is through information.  If building owners get the knowledge of how to make their buildings more efficient, they will  because it makes sense to do so.  If communities are provided the relevant information, they will make enabling smart choices.  Indeed, she closed on the importance of information, referencing three sources.  First, EPA has now been collecting information on greenhouse gas emissions for two years.  That information is publicly available.  People should look at this because it identifies the sources of the climate change problem.  Electric utilities are far and away the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases (which is to say, all of us are because, with rare exceptions, all of us use electricity generated with fossil fuels).  

Second,  she touted the EPA’s 2012 report, Climate Change Indicators in the United States (18MB).  This is a valuable resource. Twenty-six “indicators” are assessed as to what they show about a world beset by climate change.  All are familiar with reduced ice sheets, reduced snowpack and higher average temperatures.  Less familiar is the documented increase in ragweed pollen season and retained ocean heat.  And the report is honest about what is not known.  Although 7000 Americans were reported to have died of heat-related illnesses in the last 30 years, trends have not been determined.  Although one might think that a hotter world would lead to more hurricanes, the data have not proven that yet.

Last, Ms. McCarthy praised government research into adaptation and the various reports issued and to be issued.

Some view agency heads in Washington as essentially valueless; talking heads, here today and gone tomorrow.  The bureaucracy was there when the new head arrived and will be there when the now old head leaves.  What this view misses is that the agency head can muster the agency’s resources in support of one initiative, argue for it on Capitol Hill, at the White House and in the press, and give the extra boost when the going gets rough.  Gina McCarthy was instrumental in building the northeast’s cap-and-trade program (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) in her native Connecticut.  Certainly, that idea on a national basis is percolating again.

Carbon Emissions | Climate Change | Regulation | Renewable Energy | Solar Energy

State Common Law Carbon Dioxide Liability Claims: Premonitions of Preemption (and Dismissal)

November 29, 2012 00:48
by J. Wylie Donald

Left open by the Supreme Court’s decision in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527  (2011), was the question of whether state law nuisance claims for the emission of carbon dioxide were viable in the face of the Clean Air Act.  That question continued to be answered in the negative with the decision of the Western District of Pennsylvania last month in Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, GenOn Power Midwest, L.P. (W.D. Penn. Oct. 12, 2012) (attached), which was appealed to the Third Circuit the Friday before Thanksgiving.1   

In Bell, plaintiffs, neighbors to defendant’s coal-fired electricity generating plant, filed suit alleging:

that the [defendant’s] atmospheric emissions fall upon their properties and leave a film of
either black dust (i.e., unburned coal particulate/unburned coal combustion byproduct) or white
powder (i.e., fly ash). According to the Plaintiffs, those discharges require them to constantly
clean their properties, preclude them from full use and enjoyment of their land, and “make
[them] prisoners in their own homes.”  Order at 2. 

Plaintiffs further alleged that defendant did not use best available technology and was damaging the plaintiffs' properties, an outcome not permitted by defendant’s Permit to Operate.  Id. at 3.  As to legal theories, plaintiffs alleged nuisance, negligence and recklessness, trespass and strict liability.  Id.

Defendant moved to dismiss, asserting, among other things, that the claims were preempted by the Clean Air Act.  Id. at 5.  The court agreed. 

Plaintiffs had attempted to distance themselves from their complaint, which had criticized defendants for failing to comply with their Clean Air Act permit and sought injunctive relief.  They asserted in their papers that “[t]he Defendant is allowed to emit whatever millions of pounds of emissions the [EPA] has decided for Defendant but Defendant is not allowed by those emissions granted [to] it by the [EPA] to damage private property.”  Id. at 8.

The court was not buying:  “A review of the Complaint reveals that the allegations of Plaintiffs, as pleaded, assert various permit violations and seek a judicial examination of matters governed by the regulating administrative bodies. … Thus, the Court reads the Plaintiffs’ Complaint, including its common law claims, as necessarily speaking to and attacking emission standards."  Id. at 10.

The court specifically noted that the Supreme Court, in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, had held that “the Clean Air Act preempted federal common law nuisance claims as a means to curb emissions from power plants.”  Id. at 12 (citing 131 S. Ct. at 2540).  It also noted, however, that the Court had not ruled on state law nuisance claims.  Those claims would depend “on the preemptive effect of the federal Act.” Id. (citing 131 S. Ct. at 2540).

Did the Clean Air Act preempt state law nuisance claims?  The court had little doubt and turned for authority to the Fourth Circuit’s decision in N. Carolina, ex rel. Cooper v. Tennessee Valley Auth., 615 F.3d 291 (4th Cir. 2010), cert. dismissed, 132 S. Ct. 46
(2011)).  In finding that “public nuisance claims were preempted because they threaten to scuttle the comprehensive regulatory and permitting regime that has developed over several decades,” Order at 12-13, the Fourth Circuit held: 

A field of state law, here public nuisance law, would be preempted if a scheme of federal regulation is so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it. Here, of course, the role envisioned for the states has been made clear. Where Congress has chosen to grant states an extensive role in the Clean Air Act's regulatory regime through the SIP and permitting process, field and conflict preemption principles caution at a minimum against according states a wholly different role and allowing state nuisance law to contradict joint federal-state rules so meticulously drafted. Id. at 13, quoting Cooper. 615 F.3d at 303 (citations, quotation marks and alterations in original omitted).

Accordingly, because the “specific controls, equipment, and processes to which the Cheswick Generating Station is subject to are implemented and enforced by [state and federal regulators]  Plaintiff’s Complaint, as pled, would necessarily require this Court [the Western District] to engraft or alter those standards, and judicial interference in this regulatory realm is neither warranted nor permitted. To conclude otherwise would require an impermissible determination regarding the reasonableness of an otherwise government regulated activity.”  Id. at 14.  Thus, plaintiffs’ claims were pre-empted.

Plaintiffs had one slim hope.  The Clean Air Act contains a “savings clause”, which provides “[n]othing in this section shall restrict any right which any person (or class of persons) may have under any statute or common law to seek enforcement of any emission standard or limitation or to seek any other relief (including relief against the Administrator or a State agency).” 42 U.S.C. § 7604(e).  This too had been considered in Cooper and rejected.  Order at 14, citing 15 F.3d at 303-04.  Further, the Supreme Court had spoken on savings clauses as well:  “As we have said, a federal statute’s saving clause cannot in reason be construed as allowing a common law right, the continued existence of which would be absolutely inconsistent with the provisions of the act.”  Id. at 14, quoting AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1748 (2011).  Thus, the court found that “Based on the extensive and comprehensive regulations promulgated by the administrative bodies which govern air emissions from electrical generation facilities, the Court finds and rules that to permit the common law claims would be inconsistent with the dictates of the Clean Air Act.”  Id. at 15. 

Accordingly, notwithstanding the suggestion by the Supreme Court in American Electric Power that state law nuisance claims for carbon dioxide liability might be viable, if the Western District’s analysis is correct and applicable to carbon dioxide, such claims will not survive for very long.

 

1Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 839 F. Supp. 2d 849, 865 (S.D. Miss. 2012), also relied on American Electric Power and found state law nuisance claims displaced by the Clean Air Act.  That court had first found that plaintiffs’ claims failed due to res judicata and estoppel, and half a dozen other reasons, and its analysis of the displacement and preemption issue is not extensive. See Dismissed Means Dismissed: Comer v. Murphy Oil, the First Climate Change Liability Damages Suit, Is Tossed Again.

20121012 Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, Order of Dismissal & Notice of Appeal.pdf (694.83 kb)

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court

Proposed Rule for Power Plant Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Much Ado About Nothing?

March 30, 2012 00:20
by J. Wylie Donald

Wow!  Whether one likes the president or not, one must concede he's not afraid of leading. Just a little over seven months from the election he has drawn a line in the sand and proposed a rule that may fundamentally alter America's energy mix and takes a big step toward addressing carbon dioxide emissions.  Or it does nothing at all.  We are talking of course of Tuesday's announcement of new source performance standards for electricity plants.   In EPA's words:

The EPA is proposing standards of performance that require that all new fossil fuel-fired EGUs meet an electricity-output-based emission rate of 1,000 lb
CO2/MWh of electricity generated on a gross basis. This proposed standard is based on the demonstrated performance of natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) units, which are currently in wide use throughout the country, and are likely to be the predominant fossil fuel-fired technology for new generation in the future.  EPA, Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units (proposed rule) at 13 (Mar. 27, 2012) .

So natural gas is in.  And what about the other fossil fuels?  New plants using coal or oil and even IGCC (integrated gas combined cycle) can be built but EPA expects that they will need to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) to meet the standards.  Id.

What brought about this groundbreaking new rule?  We set forth the legal foundation in a companion post.  Suffice to say here that EPA has moved a long way from the days before Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), when greenhouse gases were not Clean Air Act "pollutants."  But the non-regulatory drivers were perhaps even more significant.  All are aware of "fracking".  The use of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing in shales a mile beneath the surface has unleashed a torrent of natural gas.  As Forbes reports this month natural gas prices are half of what they were just a few years ago.  And the glut is not seen to be abating.  EPA has seized on this surfeit:  "technological developments and discoveries of abundant natural gas reserves have caused natural gas prices to decline precipitously in recent years and have secured those relatively low prices for the near-future."  Proposed Rule at 15.  As a result, "energy industry modeling forecasts uniformly predict that few, if any, new coal-fired power plants will be built in the foreseeable future."  Id. 

In other words, the proposed regulation will have hardly any effect (even none) on coal-fired generation because no one was going to build those plants anyway.  "Our IPM modeling, using Energy Information Administration (EIA) reference case assumptions, projects that there will be no construction of new coal-fired generation without CCS by 2030. Under these assumptions, the proposed rule will not impose costs by 2030."  Id. at 17.

We have read the commentary that this is the death of coal.  The cost of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, which will be the only way for a new coal plant to meet the new standard, is prohibitive. Accordingly, no coal plants will be built. According to EPA, however, coal-fired production was dead anyway because of the glut of natural gas. 

Crystal balls are notoriously unreliable.  Some may remember that nuclear power was to make electricity too cheap to meter. But that didn't happen.  America built the largest man-made construction the world has ever seen (the interstate highway system) on the assumption that gasoline would always be abundant.  That was in error.  An oil embargo introduced Americans to long lines at the fuel pump and locking gas caps. Most forget that natural gas production peaked in the early 1970s, not to be exceeded again until over twenty years had passed.  The point is:  smart people took their best science and made plans.  But reality somehow did not get the message. 

For what it is worth, here is our crystal ball on the demise of coal.  First, CCS technology is pertinent not only to coal. Combustion of natural gas emits carbon dioxide as well. The regulatory imperative will push natural gas plants to address their CO2, and coal will be able to take advantage of improvements in CCS technology. Second, the United States has been called the Saudi Arabia of coal. To expect that industry to dry up and blow away is naïve. Shale gas went from a vanishingly small fraction of the US energy mix to over 20% in five years or less. Innovation made this possible.  Just as ten years ago we could not imagine today's natural gas industry, we may not be able to recognize our coal resource in another ten years. Third, we thought it was fundamental that energy security depends on a mix of energy sources. It would be foolhardy to rely completely on natural gas.  It will only take one cold winter and a natural gas pipeline calamity to make coal seem like a sensible alternative. 

Whether the proposed rule will actually have an impact depends on numerous factors.  All can agree, however, that climate change has been thrust back on the national agenda. 

Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | Greenhouse Gases | Regulation

Coal Exports and Rising Temperatures

June 13, 2011 07:33
by J. Wylie Donald


Front page news in Baltimore this past week were two stories. The first notes record temperatures in Maryland in the first full week of June, 2011.  The second was a lead article this Sunday on the record year the Port of Baltimore is having moving coal from the mines of Appalachia to the coke ovens of Asia. It does not take a Shakespeare schooled in climate change to grasp the irony.

First, the weather. Central Maryland suffered four 90-plus record highs in ten days, topping out at Baltimore-Washington International Airport at 99 degrees on June 8.  The summer (which hasn't even started yet) is picking up where last year left off as being the hottest on record for Baltimore.  

Now, the coal. Ships are literally waiting in line in Chesapeake Bay to get a place at the pier to load the high quality anthracite "metallurgical" coal that this part of the world produces in abundance. Freight trains deliver millions of tons to two private terminals, which load ships capable of carrying 77,000 tons of the black stuff, or even 135,000 tons.  The Port of Baltimore is on track to ship over 14 million tons this year. For comparison this is almost 3 times the pre-recession volume of just 5 years ago.

More jobs, more dollars, more activity. Of course, not everyone is happy. The Sierra Club points out that shipping coal is not consistent with being a leader on combating global warming. But the Sierra Club has no present intent to attempt to interfere with exports (but they will object to increasing the size of the Port).

Not so across the continent.  Seems the Asian appetite for coal is also seeking the carbon of Montana and Wyoming.  The difference is that on the West coast the only dedicated coal terminal is in British Columbia.  Washington State is seeking to build new coal terminals with the first being at Longview.  Montana interests are excited at the prospect.  In Washington, however, the Sierra Club and others are opposing such activities and have appealed the Cowitz County commissioners' approval of an application to build a new coal terminal.    Besides the usual types of challenges to mining and transport in the domestic realm, the appellants also assert that the commissioners should have studied the consequences of burning coal in Asia.  This is novel.  

My colleague, classmate and Seattle Port Commissioner John Creighton shared with me the implications:  "While many in Washington State are sympathetic to the environmental community's concerns over the ultimate impact of a large dirty coal export operation on global warming, the port community is apprehensive about how such a precedent might affect the environmental review process on other port projects.  For example, in looking to permit an airport project, would we be required to go beyond the airport grounds and consider greenhouse gas emissions of a British Air nonstop all the way from Seattle to London?  On a container terminal project, would we have to trace the greenhouse gas impacts of every possible product transportable in a container?"

Commissioner Creighton's concerns are well-founded.  What are the limits of environmental impact assessments?  This approach by environmental groups - looking at the entire chain of events in a particular activity - is well-tested, however.  New nuclear power was stopped in California by focusing on California waste disposal law.  See Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation & Development Comm'n, 461 U.S. 190 (1983).  Chemical weapons disposal was challenged (unsuccessfully) by attacking the environmental impact statement and transportation across the "global commons."  See Greenpeace USA v. Stone, 748 F. Supp. 749 (D. Haw. 1990), dismissed as moot, 924 F. 2d 175 (9th Cir. 1991).

So, it is hot in Maryland.  And elsewhere.  Notwithstanding the pass current coal shipping operations have in the East, the West may hold a lesson on whether this will continue to be business as usual.

Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Regulation


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