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Coal-Focused Strategy in Bush Energy Plan Would Increase Global Warming

'Clean Coal' a Misguided, Costly Diversion from Sustainable Alternatives

WASHINGTON--Over the next 20 years, the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming will increase by at least 40% in the electricity sector alone under President Bush's energy plan, according to a new study released today by World Wildlife Fund.

Entitled "Coal: America's Past, America's Future?," the study written by energy experts from the respected Tellus Institute examines the global warming consequences of the Bush plan's continued reliance on coal--the world's dirtiest fossil fuel--to meet the nation's future energy needs.

The experts argue that coal will not be truly clean in the foreseeable future and that efforts to produce so-called "clean coal" are misguided as a centrepiece of national energy policy because there are much cheaper ways to make clean electricity. In the meantime, however, the Administration's plan to promote coal and relax clean air standards could increase the output of existing "dirty coal" plants, and raise CO2 emissions from the electricity sector by 40 to 60% over present day levels by the year 2020.

"This kind of impact will have a devastating effect on global warming and the threat it poses to both people and wildlife," said Jennifer Morgan, director of World Wildlife Fund's Climate Change Campaign. "Because, 20 years from now, more than 90% of coal-fired electricity could still come from today's existing plants, 'clean coal' is, and for the foreseeable future will remain, an oxymoron."

Coal plants are the electricity sector's principal source of pollution, accounting for more than three-quarters of the industry's emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, mercury and carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming. Most of the 500-plus coal plants in operation in the US today are "grandfathered" into clean air regulations, meaning they are largely exempt from the regulations, and thus, have continued to operate at emission levels 10 times that of plants meeting current standards. The Bush energy plan would make it possible for some "mothballed" plants, no longer in use because they cannot meet clean air standards, to be placed back in operation.

The United States has indicated that it does not intend to pursue the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that would set limits for carbon pollution and other emissions that contribute to global warming. "When President Bush backed away from the protocol, he promised to come up with a plan to reduce carbon emissions in the United States," said Morgan. "An energy policy based on fossil fuels such as coal and oil is certainly not the way to go to achieve this goal. This administration needs to take global warming seriously, and get back on track with the Kyoto protocol," said Morgan. "If we accept, as President Bush stated in his campaign, that global warming is real and requires urgent action, then we must start facing the fact that the coal age may soon be over," Morgan added. "As an energy source for the future, coal is as dated as leaded gasoline."

A coal-focused energy strategy would continue and worsen the following problems:

  • Good money after bad. Instead of subsidies for polluting fuels like coal, we should use tax dollars to promote promising clean technologies. Bush has proposed $2 billion in new coal subsidies on top of the $2 billion already squandered on the Clean Coal Technologies program.
  • Going against the flow. Total US coal consumption has grown 17% since 1990, in stark contrast to the rest of the world, where coal use has dropped 16%. Over this same period, China removed its long-standing coal subsidies and many OECD countries such as the UK and Germany shifted away from coal to cleaner burning and less expensive gas.
  • Still the culprit. Coal plants are the electricity industry's principal source of pollution. They account for 92% of that sector's sulphur oxide emissions, 85% of its nitrogen oxide emissions, 76% of its carbon dioxide emissions, and 99% of its mercury emissions.
  • The mercury is rising. Coal plants are the single leading source of all mercury pollution in the US, accounting for a third of all airborne mercury releases. Coal plant mercury emissions are expected to increase 33% by 2010, and yet they are the only major mercury sources that are unregulated.
  • It's not just the air. Coal is increasingly extracted from surface mines and mountaintop mining. Coal mining also results in 95% of acidic mine drainage in the US which harms aquatic life in 12,000 miles of American rivers.
  • The dirty twenty dozen. Of the 500-plus coal plants in operation in the US today, most were built before the advent of modern pollution control regulation. When new pollution standards were passed these plants were largely exempted because they were expected to close. Generation from these plants has increased and without purposeful efforts by the Bush Administration to mandate the necessary controls, pollution from these ageing coal plants will continue to grow.
  • "Clean coal" is not the wave of the future. Plant owners, given an encouraging regulatory and market environment, could well bring another 5 GW of old mothballed plants out of retirement, and increase the output of currently operating coal plants by 20%, accounting for 70 % of the increase in coal generation
  • Making a bad situation worse. Until recently, most new power plants were expected to be relatively clean and efficient natural gas-fired power plants, but recent increases in gas prices has created a new opportunity for coal companies. If the Administration succeeds in promoting and further subsidizing coal, this shift back towards coal would only be further intensified.

Download the full report online or contact Jennifer Morgan at (202) 478-6130 for copies.