Let's Unplug Dirty, Old Coal Plants
Across the nation, old coal-fired power plants are gasping for their last breath, having survived long past their prime because of political favors and weak government regulations. They would have died decades ago if not for a fateful policy compromise in the late 1970s that exempted existing power plants from new air quality standards in…
Across the nation, old coal-fired power plants are gasping for their last breath, having survived long past their prime because of political favors and weak government regulations. They would have died decades ago if not for a fateful policy compromise in the late 1970s that exempted existing power plants from new air quality standards in the Clean Air Act.
The compromise was based on a prediction that the plants would be retired soon, but instead it gave them a whole new lease on life, with a free pass to pollute for another 30 plus years. And until recently, there was no end in sight.
These plants continue to cough up toxic pollutants like mercury, lead and arsenic into the air. They are by far the biggest producers of the power sector’s pollution, forcing millions of Americans to seek their own life support – in the form of respirators and inhalers – just to get through each day without an asthma attack.
Earthjustice litigation is taking steps to close the loopholes and retire dozens of the old plants, while cleaning up those that continue to operate. We are employing a multi-prong strategy to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen pollution standards based on the best available science and technology.
National environmental laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts are meant to be updated regularly to reflect the current science. Thanks to our litigation, the EPA has recently begun to deliver on the promise of our nation’s environmental laws by taking long overdue action on limiting mercury from coal, cleaning up the air in our national parks that is obscured by power plant haze, and setting national standards on water pollution. In addition, the EPA is currently on the hook for enforcing greenhouse gas emission standards, updating national standards for smog and soot.
Our goal is to end what amounts to government subsidizing of the coal power industry, and to invigorate the clean energy economy. That’s good for the climate, for our health—and for jobs. Early this year, a report by Ceres showed that the EPA’s two new air quality rules would create nearly 1.5 million jobs over the next five years because of pollution control equipment and jobs from clean energy development.
As EPA does its job and these new regulations are adopted, dirty coal plants are being forced to decide whether to pay the price of significant pollution upgrades – or shut down and replace that power with cleaner choices.
Of course, coal plant owners and their allies don’t want to have to make that choice. Even now, instead of focusing on ways to fix the economy, the coal industry is waging an all-out defensive attack on environmental protections that are good for the nation but threaten their industry’s bottom line.
Some coal plant operators have seen the writing on the wall. Since many plants are already past their prime, some are choosing to retire—a hard decision made all the easier by our litigation. For example, this spring the owner of the Trans Alta coal plant, Washington state’s largest source single source of air pollution, agreed to shut down the plant by 2025 after coming to the realization that installing the air pollution controls necessary to comply with air and water pollution standards was not a profitable venture. Currently we’re also stepping up efforts to shut down dirty, outdated coal plants in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Montana, Nevada, Texas, Tennessee, and the Midwest.
We’re also working to encourage clean energy alternatives. Our clean energy program includes preventing construction of transmission lines that favor coal over renewable energy sources and encouraging smart grid developments that rely on clean energy sources like wind and solar, strengthening efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, and pushing full implementation of state-level climate and renewable energy policies.
The nation is at an energy crossroads. One path cuts old ties and moves on to a clean energy future powered by a mix of next generation power sources. The other path prolongs our dependence on an energy source that is cooking the planet and making us sick. The choice is clear. Thank you for joining with us as we help build the clean energy path.
Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”