Uneasy lies King Coal's crown

A hold on new coal plants hints it's time for a sooty monarch to clean up or step down.

Old King Coal isn't a very merry old soul these days. A federal ruling delaying a proposed Utah power plant may shove this sooty monarch off his energy throne even as the drive toward cleaner sources, such as wind, promises to usurp this main supplier of US electricity.

Last week, an Environmental Protection Agency review panel ruled that an earlier agency decision allowing a coal plant to be built in Utah without taking into consideration carbon dioxide emissions needed further review and explanation.

In essence, the ruling puts the future of that coal plant and roughly 100 others now in the works on hold for at least a few months as the EPA mulls over how to respond. That places the aging sovereign's future in the hands of President-elect Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress.

It also further boosts the concept that CO2 should be considered a pollutant regulated by government. Last year, the US Supreme Court ruled in a case known as Massachusetts v. EPA that the agency did have authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

The review panel itself didn't set any new guidelines, which means environmentalists should restrain their enthusiasm for a while. A pause does, in fact, provide a welcome respite to think more deeply about America's energy future.

Coal cannot be easily dismissed quite yet. It provides about half of US electricity, even as it creates about a third of all CO2 emissions. Other energy sources don't yet have the broad shoulders to carry the load of making steady, year-round electricity. And much has been discussed about new ways to burn coal without a CO2 penalty or to find ways to capture the emissions by various means, such as burying it underground.

No one can yet predict whether such new techniques will prove feasible or at what cost. Building coal plants now with the idea of retrofitting them later with so-called carbon-sequestration equipment assumes that such technologies can be perfected.

Coal could be liquefied and burned as a vehicle fuel using well-established technologies. That may help cut oil imports, but it does nothing to trim CO2 pollution. The process of making liquid coal emits CO2 even before it comes out of a tailpipe, making it about twice as CO2 intensive as gasoline.

Coal may appear to be an indispensable tyrant whose toppling might trigger economic chaos.

But there is a way forward.

Capture-and-bury technologies – including solutions to the question of where to bury CO2 safely and how to get it to those sites – could be tested as fast as possible. And other, cleaner alternatives – solar, wind, geothermal – can be given incentives to develop more quickly.

The environmental cost of burning coal hasn't yet been reflected in the price consumers pay for electricity. That will change if Congress and the Obama administration combat global warming by capping CO2 emissions in power plants, forcing plant operators into expensive technical solutions or into buying pollution permits on an open market. Under such a cap-and-trade system, coal plants could continue to operate while either cleaning up or facing a competitive cost disadvantage.

If King Coal can scrub up, he can be part of a clean-energy future.

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