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No More Loopholes for King Coal

By Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, and Eric Schaefer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

The American Climate and Energy Security Act takes a big first step toward reining in both our addiction to fossil fuels, and the global warming pollution that is slowly cooking our planet. But the House bill, engineered by environmental champions Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, contains one big loophole that needs to be closed by the Senate.

Although coal-fired power plants account for roughly a third of U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions, the legislation gives them a free pass to continue business as usual -- without making any serious reductions in heat-trapping carbon dioxide for 15 years or more.

The good news is that new coal plants permitted after January 1, 2009, would be required to cut their emissions in half no later than 2025. But the bad news is very bad: the bill exempts the huge fleet of America's oldest and dirtiest coal plants from any Clean Air Act requirement to control carbon-dioxide emissions. In the face of a warming world and a cooling economy, old dirty coal plants need to clean up or retire to make way for cleaner energy. Instead of encouraging investment in new industries and new plants that are subject to stringent standards, the bill leaves the door open for the expansion of old plants that are subject to no safeguards at all.

By "grandfathering'' existing coal-fired capacity, which accounts for half of U.S. electricity generation, the bill repeats the mistakes of the 1977 Clean Air Act -- mistakes that we have been paying for in the form deadly air pollution ever since.

Three decades ago, Congress exempted older power plants from soot- and smog-causing air pollution limits that applied to newer plants on the assumption that the older plants would soon be retired. Instead, the industry took full advantage of this loophole to refurbish old plants and in some cases, to expand their capacity outright. Those changes were made without meeting the law's cleanup requirements. As a result, our dependence on dirty, aging coal-fired power plants grew.

According to Department of Energy data, more than two thirds of the electricity generated from coal comes from plants built before 1980. We can't afford to repeat this history when it comes to greenhouse gases.

Now is the time to build a job-creating clean energy infrastructure that can carry us safely into the future, and jumpstart the new green economy envisioned by President Obama.

Instead of assuring that the oldest, least efficient, and most polluting plants are phased out, Waxman-Markey leaves that up to the cap-and-trade system created by the bill. Yet that same system creates a great deal of flexibility for companies that would have to comply with the provisions -- so much flexibility that it might fail to assure the creation of clean energy jobs here at home for 15 years or more. The importance of achieving both the economic and environmental goals of this program cannot be left to chance.

To be fair, the Waxman-Markey bill includes other requirements that could help put a dent in carbon emissions from the coal sector by, for example, mandating greater use of renewable sources of electricity. But if that's the likely outcome, why give the coal industry the right to emit so much for so long after this bill takes effect?

The tilt toward coal in the House bill means that other sectors -- including the bankrupt auto industry, now largely owned by the taxpayers -- will have to do the bulk of what is necessary to meet the bill's target of an economy-wide 17 percent reduction in all greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

How can the Senate and the White House fix this problem before a bill gets to President Obama? The cap-and-trade approach can help cut emissions, but only if the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants do their part. That could be accomplished by phasing in requirements that put the oldest, dirtiest plants on a definite schedule to meet emission standards through either retrofitting or retirement. Old power plants that boost their capacity or expand in a way that increases greenhouse gas emissions should also have to meet the standards that apply to new plants.

These amendments would create an incentive for industry to use cleaner technologies instead of continuing to lean on the dirty dinosaurs that generate too much of our electricity today. Finally, if Congress cannot muster the will to legislate standards for these old plants, it ought to restore EPA's authority to do so.

Congressmen Waxman and Markey deserve our thanks for moving us one step closer to national legislation that would regulate greenhouse gases for the first time. But while the stakes are high, it is too early to conclude that the only way to pass a climate bill is to let coal plants off the hook when it comes to solving the global warming problems they helped to create. King Coal has profited handsomely for too long on loopholes from Congress. It's time for this industry to pay its fair share.