THE BLOG
07/18/2013 09:41 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

President Obama's Climate Action Plan and Domestic Coal

"Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man." -- John Prine, "Paradise"

Last month, President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan. The cornerstone of plan aim to reduce emissions rested on the demand that the EPA establish guidelines for carbon limits on new and existing power plants, especially coal-fired power plants.

Of the four gases responsible for climate change -- carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases -- carbon dioxide produces the most or 84 percent, of greenhouse gases. (The climate action plan also aims to reduce the other greenhouse gases.)

Power plants produce the most greenhouse gases, about a third, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with transportation and industry come in a close second and third. And power plants produce the most carbon, about 40 percent.

While coal power plants currently generate most of our electricity, about 37 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), they are closely followed by natural gas at 30 percent.

For these reasons, limits on carbon emissions for existing and new coal-fired power plants have been a key target of the campaigns of environmental groups and activists, and -- due to their pressure -- are at the top of President Obama's agenda.

On July 1, the EPA sent its greenhouse gas emissions rules for new power plants to the White House. President Obama called for a new proposal for new plants to be drafted by September 20, 2013.

For existing plants, President Obama stipulated that the EPA must release a draft rule by June 2014 and it must be implemented by June 2015.

According to U.S. climatologist James Hansen, "There are many things we ought to do to deal with climate change, but stopping mountaintop removal is the place to start. Coal contributes the most carbon dioxide of any energy source."

Mary Ann Hitt, Director of Beyond Coal, Sierra Club, said in an interview: "The Beyond Coal campaign is pleased with the steps that the President laid out on tackling carbon emissions because they are the biggest contributor to climate change."

In 2007, 151 new coal-fired power plants were proposed. By 2012, only 15 were still under consideration as a result of a concerted campaign by a wide array of actions and participants.

Now, most of the focus is on existing coal power plants.

The U.S. has 589 coal-fired power plants as of 2011, according to the EIA. Most coal is mined in Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Texas; and used in Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Montana and Indiana.

Hitt, Beyond Coal, Sierra Club, said: "We would have loved to see mountaintop removal rules implemented in the Appalachia region."

Coal mining, particularly mountaintop removal, has been in sharp decline in regions such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, with a 31 percent drop reported in the last year in Central Appalachia, West Virginia.

As of 2011, the top coal producers are Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, and Cloud Peak Energy.

After Obama's speech, shares for stock on the biggest company nosedived about 6-8 percent on average. Arch Coal, one of the top but also most indebted U.S. coal producers, announced that it was planning "to sell three Utah coal mines from its most profitable division ... as the company tries to cut costs from falling coal prices."

It was not only Obama's speech that tipped the balance against coal. On June 24, the Supreme Court announced that it would reconsider the EPA Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which is part of the Clean Air Act and requires states to address movement of air pollution from one state to another downwind state.

Additionally, many coal power plants -- like nuclear power plants -- are nearing retirement age, which is 40 years on average. Most coal-fired power plants were built in the 1950s and 1960s, with the median age around 1966.

Often the power plant's age leads to closure. Just last week two coal-fired power plants in Southwestern Pennsylvania -- Mitchell and Hatfield's Ferry -- announced they would shut down by Oct. 9 rather than face expensive work to bring them up to safety standards. Residents in the area will benefit from reduced air pollution, which contributes to asthma and heart attacks.

Overall, the coal industry faces a downward trend domestically.

At Mother Jones, Kate Sheppard argues that the "Coal Industry Knows that Enviros Are Winning."

And there's another silver lining: renewable energy is quickly catching up. Last week, the International Energy Agency released its second annual market report predicating that renewable energy will surpass natural gas as the second most used energy source after coal by 2016.

As to electricity, most coal, over 90 percent, is used to generate electricity. But here, too, renewable energy quickly catching up as a source of electricity.

Questions loom about what the benefit would be of going the executive rather than the legislative route in passing climate legislation.

The power plant regulations mentioned at the outset need to pass the EPA and Gina McCarthy's nomination remains held up in the Senate by Republican opposition. In his speech, President Obama called for obstruction to her confirmation to stop.

Green groups and activists have been very successful in shutting down coal-fired power plants. The existing plants have, like nuclear power plants, been collapsing under their own weight: mostly slated for retirement and no longer financially viable. They have also been successful in reducing down mountain top removal.

Hitt, Beyond Coal, Sierra Club, tracked and touted the success of the movement: "five years ago, 50 percent of our electricity came from coal. Last year, it was 37 percent. This marks a sea change in the coal industry's clout and it creates an opening."

It remains to be seen if the combined pressure of this work and the President's Climate Action Plan will reduce and phase out coal use in the U.S.