To Dismay of Power Utilities, Coal
Emissions Are Under Fire
Jul 31, 2007 - Roanoke Times & World
The emergence of global warming as a
mainstream concern has altered the political landscape
for coal -- the abundant domestic fuel that provides
half the nation's electricity and is a major driver
of the economy of far Southwest Virginia.
months ago the U.S. Department of Energy issued a
report highlighting coal's "resurgence" in electricity
generation. In recent years, natural gas-fired power
plants have been more likely to be built, but that
fuel has become more expensive. The report predicted
coal would account for 59 percent of new generation
between 2005 and 2030.
But increasing worries about
global warming caused by emissions from power plants,
automobiles and other sources could pose a roadblock
for the roughly 150 coal-fired power plants that have
been proposed to satisfy rising electricity demand.
This month, Citigroup downgraded coal company stocks,
citing the politics of global warming among other
Power companies are coal's largest customers,
so new laws would make it more expensive to burn coal
relative to other fuels, especially natural gas, and
could have a major impact on the industry.
states have taken steps to make it tougher to build
conventional coal-fired plants, and there are multiple
bills intended to curb carbon dioxide emissions circulating
on Capitol Hill.
One of coal's defenders in Washington
has been U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat representing
Virginia's 9th District, which covers much of Southwest
Virginia. Boucher heads the House Subcommittee on
Energy and Air Quality. He is working on a bill that
would phase in restrictions on carbon emissions in
a way that would maintain coal's attractiveness to
"It is critically important that we retain
the complete ability of electric utilities to burn
coal now and in the future in whatever quantities
they desire," Boucher said, "and that ability is not
inconsistent with making a substantial contribution
as a nation to reducing greenhouse gas emissions."
Several technologies are in development to capture
the carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired power plants,
but a solution on where to store the gas is not expected
for a decade or more. Researchers are investigating
the viability of storing carbon dioxide underground,
including in old coal mines. A demonstration project
is planned for Virginia's coalfield region.
Electric Power, the Columbus, Ohio, utility that also
provides electricity to the Roanoke region, supports
legislation from Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico,
and Arlen Specter, R- Pennsylvania, that would allow
utilities to continue to emit vast quantities of carbon
dioxide if they support other measures to contain
AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry said
that whatever global warming debate may remain, "The
political science of climate change is very certain,
and we're a large user of coal, so it's important
to proactively go forward."
Plus, other legislation
could allow coal to become a player in U.S. transportation
for the first time in decades.
As part of his carbon
bill, Boucher also plans to include provisions to
spur the development of a liquefied coal industry
by offering federal support if oil prices go below
about $40 a barrel.
The idea is to insulate producers
of liquefied coal from swings in the price of oil
"that would assure the facilities would not become
stranded if OPEC tried to drive alternative fuels
out of the American market by cutting the price,"
Boucher said, referring to the Organization of Petroleum
The prospect of liquefied coal,
which could power jets as well as automobiles, excites
people in the coal business, who could get a new market
"It would be, certainly, a shot in the
arm for the coal industry," said Mike Quillen, chairman
and chief executive officer of Alpha Natural Resources
Environmentalists are less enthusiastic.
The long-established technology to create liquid fuel
from coal emits far more carbon than making petroleum-based
fuels. Boucher has said that only companies that use
technologies to reduce their emissions to the level
of a similar petroleum facility would be eligible
for the federal assistance program.
Michael Town, director of the Sierra Club's Virginia
chapter, said federal money spent on liquefying coal
could be better put toward renewable energy and promoting
Boucher said the debate on how to deal
with greenhouse gases has been prominent in Washington
this year. The subject has prompted 10 days of hearings
for his subcommittee, which he called "an extraordinary
Since last year, plans for new coal-fired
plants have been canceled in at least eight states,
but Dominion Virginia Power recently applied to build
a plant near Saint Paul in Wise County.
David Botkins said the failure of coal plant proposals
elsewhere was not a concern because his company has
proposed a facility with extensive emissions controls.
The plant would be built to allow the capture of carbon
dioxide, once technology to do so is commercially
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