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New emissions limits squeeze coal plants

John Patsch/Staff Photographer 08/27/03 Coal is piled by Midest Generation's Will County StatiRomeoville.  The Bush Administratirelaxed rules for coal

John Patsch/Staff Photographer 08/27/03 Coal is piled by Midest Generation's Will County Station in Romeoville. The Bush Administration relaxed rules for coal fired power plants.

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Updated: October 22, 2013 6:16AM



Coal-fired power plants, already an endangered species in Illinois, will be further threatened by new emissions limits announced by President Barack Obama’s administration Friday.

The new Environmental Protection Agency rules, meant to help address climate change, apply only to new power plants, and put the first nationwide limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

“We know this is not just about melting glaciers,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “Climate change — caused by carbon pollution — is one of the most significant public health threats of our time. That’s why EPA has been called to action.”

Power plants using cheaper and cleaner natural gas will have no trouble meeting the standards, but there is no proven technology that would enable new commercial-scale coal plants to stay within the limits.

And though the rules have no immediate affect on the 13 coal-fired power plants already operating in Illinois, they are likely to influence new EPA rules aimed at existing plants.

“What gives us concern is if they are this stringent for the new plants, are they going to be similarly stringent next year when they come out with a proposal for existing plants,” said Phillip Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association.

“I’m convinced that this administration wants to put coal out of business and this is the way its being done,” Gonet said.

But another Democrat, Gov. Pat Quinn, gets a pass from Gonet, who said the state has been cooperating with the industry on mining permits. “Governor Quinn’s been pretty supportive for coal,” said Gonet.

Coal power plants already have been hurt by competition from plants fueled by natural gas. Gas prices have fallen to the point where it costs about the same as coal, but gas does not require as many expensive pollution controls.

Meanwhile, some coal power plants in Illinois are not meeting current state emissions standards, and have gotten more time from the state to do so.

Now the new federal regulation, combined with new competition, does not bode well for the coal power industry here, said Julien Dumoulin-Smith, an analyst for UBS Securities in New York.

“Illinois is one of the states that is probably going to see the most amount of coal plant retirement announcements of any state in the country over the next 24 months,” Dumoulin-Smith said.

Already Midwest Generation, a company operating in bankruptcy, has closed two Chicago plants on the Southwest Side rather than invest in better pollution controls.

“Today coal is not competing effectively in the electricity marketplace,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

“Natural gas, nuclear and wind power are out-competing coal plants,” Learner said.

However, impact on Illinois coal mines may not be as great, mostly due to rising foreign demand for the state’s coal, according to Gonet.

About 85 percent of the Illinois’ lower cost, high-sulphur coal is shipped out of state. Right now, most of it goes to east coast power plants equipped with scrubbers to remove the sulphur and other pollutants.

Illinois power plants have mostly used higher cost, low-sulphur coal from Wyoming, in order to spend less on pollution controls.

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