This article was originally published on PAGE by Lance Brown

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency officially published in the Federal Register its final rule for New Source Performance Standards (NSPS). The rule, which all but disallows the construction of new conventional coal-fired power plants, drew heavy criticism for the way it was designed, with industry arguing that EPA intentionally created a standard that gas-fired plants could meet, but coal-fired plants could not. Yet, after a four-month delay to reconsider the rule, the EPA published the rule with no changes. The long-term effects to the U.S. energy infrastructure could be significant.

PACE and others have sounded the alarm about the effect of regulating new conventional coal-fired power plants out of existence, with PACE Associate Director John Grimes telling EPA in an October public hearing in Atlanta, “We are concerned that introducing new carbon dioxide regulations on existing power plants will signal the virtual end of using coal for electricity in the U.S. And while some who will speak today and in other EPA sessions will applaud this, we believe that taking coal off the table for American power production is neither in the best interest of consumers nor good for the economy.”

Mike Duncan, President and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, offered similar remarks about the latest development in EPA regulatory policy, stating, “One must wonder what EPA was doing for the four months it took to post its NSPS to the Federal Register, since the rule remains just as destructive and ill-conceived as it was in September.”

Earlier in the month, EPA revised another rule to remove legal obstacles to geologic sequestration used in the process of carbon capture technology. The rule helps to ensure that the waste streams captured by carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology are not classified as hazardous wastes. Such a ruling, which becomes final on March 4th, is important for sites such as Kemper County, Mississippi, which uses CCS technology to reduce emissions from the plant and to assist in enhanced oil recovery.

In short, this particular action by EPA opens the door for future coal-fired power plants to install and use carbon capture. This is a positive development, since EPA regulation in all but dictates that future coal-fired power facilities must use some sort of carbon capture; in fact, many believe the new guidelines were specifically designed to make sure conventional coal plants would be impossible to build. [More on that in a moment.] But carbon capture technology is still in its early stages, being years – maybe decades – away from widespread deployment.

In other words, EPA’s small allowance in the area of carbon capture pales in comparison to the volume of generation its new emissions standard is taking off the table. Projects such as the one being completed in Kemper County, Mississippi, are clearly good developments, but it would be a grave mistake to believe that such investments are easy to replicate nationwide. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what EPA’s latest salvo in the war on coal-fired power assumes. Unless, of course, they don’t want any coal-fired technology to be built at all.

If recently released emails between the Sierra Club and EPA officials are any indication, a zero-coal policy might have been the goal all along. According to a report published just days ago, directors of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign applied pressure to key EPA officials to set standards that coal-fired power plants couldn’t meet. Sierra Club officials were concerned that unless EPA manipulated the new standards with their organization’s agenda in mind, the future of coal-fired power in the U.S. might maintain a glimmer of hope. And that was never part of the plan.

The email exchanges are worth a read, as they help to paint a picture of how energy policy in the U.S. is being made at the levels that matter…and why. Just the latest – and surely not the last – red flag to consumers that EPA is committed to listening, just not to the people whose economic future depends on them.