In the process of defending the latest round of EPA regulations aimed at coal boilers, Lisa Jackson repeated a talking point that we’re hearing more and more from defenders of uber-regulation: those dirty coal boilers are so darn old! As part of an Op-Ed attack on industry published in the L.A. Times Jackson observes:
There are about 1,100 coal-fired units at about 500 power plants in this country. About half of these units are more than 40 years old, and about three-quarters of them are more than 30 years old.
Ignore for a moment the fact that air is so much cleaner today than it used to be. Ignore for a moment the fact that the vast majority of the nation meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standards that the EPA itself says defines clean air. And let’s also ignore the fact that industrial sources of all kinds (ie, not just power plants, but all of industry) contributes very little to the total amount of air pollutants that are in the air in the country today. Industry is responsible for less than 20% of all particulate matter in the air, for example – according to USEPA’s own data. We can ignore all of these facts, because Jackson ignores them, so presumably the Agency doesn’t think those undeniable truths are important.
What then are we make of these recurring statements quoting the age of the coal fleet? Let’s find out:
Here’s the narrative that environmental activists want America to believe: the nation is filled with all of these old, dirty, inefficient, uncontrolled power plants. And why do we have old, dirty, uncontrolled power plants? Because the greedy capitalists who run them refuse to build new, clean, efficient, controlled power plants. Now, since they didn’t do that, all we want them to do is make these horrible old plants a little less awful and they refuse to do it!
As stories go, that one will certainly find traction among journalists and much of the public, because it sounds so plausible. Can the “Occupy American Electric Power” movement be in the offing? There’s only one problem with that tale: it’s not true.
The plants in question are controlled. They have electrostatic precipitators or baghouses. Most use low sulfur coals. They employ various techniques to mee their nitrogen oxides emissions limits. They meet the emissions limits that the EPA has laid down and, as a result, the air is far cleaner today than it was even ten years ago. And, some of these plants are planning to upgrade their controls, making investments of billion of dollars. So it’s misleading to call these plants “dirty” as Jackson has. They may not be quite as clean as she has now decided they should be, but they are far from uncontrolled.
It is true that they are less efficient than new plants, so why didn’t the utilities and industry build new, modern, more efficient power plants? Well – they tried. But, a combination of the incredibly expensive and clunky system that the EPA operates and the way that eco-activists became experts at manipulating that system to block new projects meant that the coal fleet didn’t turn over the way it should have. The Sierra Club was particularly successful in preventing new coal plants from being built. They seem to have taken the page down at their website “Beyond Coal” (at least I can’t find it any longer) but the Sierra Club used to proudly display a list of the hundreds of new coal projects that they successfully killed by using the EPA permit process, appeal process and the court system to further their agenda. The developers who should have built the new plants to replace the old realized that they could spend millions in development and permit costs and – after several years – have nothing to show for it. Today, there aren’t many people willing to even attempt permitting a new coal plant in this country.
So yeah, we do have a whole lotta aging, less efficient coal plants in the U.S. Lisa, just as we continue to operate an aging fleet of oil refineries. But that didn’t happen because industry was unwilling to make the investment in building new, modern plants that would have ultimately made them more money. That happened because the EPA and environmental activists made it impossible to to do anything else.