Is President Barack Obama poised to stop any more coal from burning in the United States?
That’s the message from U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican running for Senate in West Virginia against Democrat Natalie Tennant. In a campaign ad released July 29, Capito, surrounded by blue-collar workers, warns against Obama’s coal regulations.
"The president's come out with rules that say 'no new coal-fired power plants,’" Capito says. "But what he's going to come out with in the next several months is you're not even going to be able to burn coal very limitedly in the existing plants."
We already fact-checked the claim that new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency say "no new coal-fired power plants." We said it was Mostly False.
But what about existing power plants? We decided to take a look.
What the EPA is doing
In June 2014, the EPA, at Obama’s direction, proposed a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent compared to 2005 base levels over the next 25 years. The plan is now in a 12-month review period before it is finalized.
The proposal does not say that existing coal plants must be shut down or can’t burn coal. So in a literal sense, Capito’s claim falls flat. In fact, baked into the EPA’s own estimates is an assumption that 30 percent of the country’s energy will still come from coal in 2030. (In 2013, about 39 percent of U.S. power came from coal.)
Here’s what the EPA is actually doing.
Under the new rules, the EPA has given each state its own goal for reducing carbon emissions over the next 25 years. While the goal is a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases nationally, every state has a different threshold it must reach based on feasibility, cost and current pollution levels, among other factors.
How are these goals achieved? The EPA basically says it's up to states to decide. There are a variety of options, including proposals for states to create regional cap and trade networks, invest in renewable energy and build smart grid technology.
And, yes, they could phase out existing coal plants.
But experts we spoke with said that’s far from a certainty or the only option.
First, the steps toward reaching these goals will be gradual. So to insinuate that within several months the EPA is going to stop plants from burning coal is just fear mongering.
Second, it’s important to keep in mind that many of the coal plants already in existence are quite old — most have been in operation at least 30 years — and were on track to be retired in the next decade anyway. Perhaps these new rules accelerate that process, but it was coming.
Another reason many coal plants were set to close is because of existing federal rules against mercury emissions. These rules are much more stringent than the new carbon rules, experts told us.
But plants that weren’t scheduled for retirement that can meet the mercury standards have other options to stay open. For example, they can retrofit their facilities with technology that will result in cleaner emissions, such as scrubbers that remove some of the carbon.
"In no way does this program say coal can’t live," said Michael Webber, the deputy director of the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin. "What it is is a death blow for outdated, old, vintage coal plants, unless they pay for" technology upgrades.
So how does the EPA proposal say "you're not even going to be able to burn coal very limitedly in the existing plants"? We asked Capito’s campaign for evidence.
Spokeswoman Amy Graham told us that, "Not a single West Virginia coal plant meets the average standard set for our state in the EPA rule. That doesn't mean that every plant has to close, but because 95 percent of our state's electricity production comes from coal, in order to reduce the state's emissions rate to the required average, coal capacity will have to close."
But that’s not remotely close to what Capito said. In fact, the idea that the EPA proposal "doesn’t mean that every plant has to close" seems to entirely contradict Capito’s claim in the ad.
What’s next for coal?
Some energy companies might find technological upgrades too costly, and will seek alternatives such as natural gas, which is much cheaper right now.
But for other facilities, particularly larger ones, the initial upfront costs may be offset by savings from creating more efficient, modern plants, said Dallas Burtraw, associate director of the Resources for the Future Center for Climate and Electricity Policy, an energy think tank funded by government, nonprofits and energy companies.
"We’re going to see a shakeout of older and smaller coal plants, the least efficient ones anyway," Burtraw said. "The ones that remain will have a high level of environmental controls and will run relatively efficiently with a high utilization rate."
States, too, will influence this process when they create their blueprint for decreasing emissions, said Amy Jaffe, executive director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California, Davis.
"It may be in some places there is nothing you can do other than stop using coal, but there's nothing in the rules that says there can’t be coal," Jaffe said. "States have been given targets based on their existing profiles and will come back to the EPA with state plans for how to meet a target of reduction. Some states that are using coal will continue to burn coal and find other ways to cut emissions."
We asked Paul Meier, an associate scientist and director of the University of Wisconsin Energy Institute, to review what impact the rules might have on West Virginia in particular.
Coal plants in West Virginia on average emit 2,056 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. The EPA’s proposed guidelines would require West Virginia coal plants to average 1,748 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour by 2020 and 1,620 pounds per megawatt hour by 2030, a 21 percent decrease that Meier said "requires only a slight reduction in coal reliance."
"This can be accomplished by improving the efficiency of the coal plants, or by displacing some of the coal generation with natural gas, nuclear, renewable electricity," Meier said. "States may propose their own plan to accomplish this, and may also receive credit for increasing conservation and efficiency efforts."
Capito said "What (Obama is) going to come out with in the next several months is you're not even going to be able to burn coal very limitedly in the existing plants." The proposal Capito is referring to is an EPA plan to cut carbon emissions in existing power plants. Those rules do not prohibit current facilities from burning coal, and even Capito’s spokeswoman said the rule "doesn't mean that every plant has to close."
Some facilities will close down within the next decade, but many of those plants were scheduled to be retired anyway due to age and other factors. States and power companies have options to continue to utilize coal for energy, and experts said they expect coal to remain part of the national portfolio for years to come.
We rate Capito’s claim False.