As Appalachian coal production continues its drastic decline, West Virginia’s coal-producing counties are not only losing people as lifelong residents are forced to flee their homes in order to find work, but in many cases, they’re also relinquishing millions of dollars from their budgets.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s June 2 announcement of its new Clean Power Plan caused an immediate uproar in West Virginia.
The 645-page rule, which requires a nationwide 30 percent carbon emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, aims to reduce health problems and climate change associated with greenhouse gas emissions that are produced by power plants.
“The EPA projects that, in 2030, the significant reductions in the harmful carbon pollution and in other air pollution, to which this rule would lead, would result in net climate and health benefits of $48 billion to $82 billion,” the plan reads.
According to data used in the proposal, fossil fuel-fired electric utility generating units (EGUs) are the largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, or GHGs, with coal-fired units taking the lead.
The White House released a statement on the potential impact for West Virginia, which noted that in 2012, 66 million metric tons of carbon pollution were emitted from power plants in West Virginia; and that according to recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10.2 percent of West Virginia’s adult population along with 7.6 percent of children in the state suffer from asthma.
“In the first year of the program alone, these reductions will provide important health protections nationally, including preventing 100,000 asthma attacks in children and young adults and avoiding 1,800-4,270 premature deaths and up to 2,100 heart attacks. West Virginia residents will benefit from a share of these national health protections,” the release stated.
Despite these projections, West Virginia lawmakers and industry leaders are still concerned about the well being of the state’s jobs and economy.
However, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was one of few who responded positively to the announcement.
“The EPA announced today a major step in reducing carbon emissions, and I support its goal of safeguarding the public’s health. Strengthening West Virginians’ health and well being has always been at the heart of my career in public service,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “I understand the fears that these rules will eliminate jobs, hurt our communities and drive up costs for working families. I am keenly focused on policy issues that affect West Virginians’ health and their livelihoods. However, rather than let fear alone drive our response, we should make this an opportunity to build a stronger future for ourselves.”
In 2013, over 40 percent of the power in the United States was generated from the combustion of coal and 26 percent from natural gas. Although the EPA admits there will be a gradual shift away from coal and toward renewable energy sources, the organization still predicts “coal and natural gas would remain the two leading sources of electricity generation in the U.S., with each providing more than 30 percent of the projected generation,” according to the rule.
As a result of the plan, the EPA said the U.S. natural gas demand would increase by 2020, but would then fall after 2020 as energy efficiency measures reduce power demand. The EPA also predicted that gas prices would increase by between 9 percent and 12 percent by 2020.
The rule is set to be finalized next year. In the meantime, states will have the opportunity to shape their own plans to meet the proposed carbon dioxide goals according to their own needs.
“This includes states with long-established reliance on coal-fired generation, as well as states with a commitment to promoting renewable energy,” the proposal states.
However, reducing emissions can come from efficiencies in coal-burning power plants, replacing coal with natural gas, increased use of renewable sources and promoting energy efficiency at the user level, EPA officials said. Thus, a state already using a large amount of renewable energy or with an ongoing efficiency program will not have to go as far to meet the standards.
In terms of pounds of CO2 emissions per megawatt of electricity generated, West Virginia has modest goals to meet, compared with its neighboring states. West Virginia has a 19.76 percent target reduction from 2012, whereas Virginia has a 37.55 percent target reduction and Maryland has a 36.52 percent target reduction rate.
Despite the touted “flexibility” of the plan, however, many West Virginia lawmakers and power industry leaders consider the rule to be a major blow to the state’s coal industry.
“We appreciate that the EPA is giving our state some flexibility to design and implement a plan, but based on the briefings we have had, including a conversation with EPA administrator Gina McCarthy just over an hour ago, these proposals appear to realize some of our worst fears,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a news conference following the announcement. “The bottom line is the only way to comply with these rules will be to use less West Virginia coal.”
According to the rule, the EPA projects there to be employment impacts — both gains and losses — of the guidelines.
“We project job gains and losses relative to base case for the electric generation, coal and natural gas production, and demand side energy efficiency sectors,” the plan states. “In 2020, we project job growth of 25,900 to 28,000 job-years in the power production and fuel extraction sectors, and we project an increase of 78,000 jobs in the demand-side energy efficiency sector.”
Despite the expected job growth, a major concern among many leaders is the potential job loss it could cause the coal industry and the state’s economy.
“This rule is bad. It’s bad for West Virginia, it’s bad for our coal miners, and it’s bad for our coal industry,” said Bill Raney, West Virginia Coal Association president. “Every time we lose a coal miner’s job in this state we lose a piece of West Virginia because we lose payroll, taxes, hospitalization and contributions to the miners’ retirement and benefit funds.”
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., agreed, saying: “This proposal is bad for jobs, make no mistake about it.”
Additionally, the plan states that “the most significant cost associated with natural gas conversion or co-firing is likely to be the incremental cost of natural gas relative to the cost of coal.” The EPA has said that the benefits of the plan will outweigh the costs, but it’s the potential costs that have state leaders concerned.
According to Charles Patton, president of Appalachian Power Company, AEP has reduced its carbon footprint overall by approximately 21 percent since 2005, which has caused an increase in electricity prices.
“What we see is a carbon footprint that is shrinking, we see an industry that has invested billions of dollars, and we see customers as a result of those investments who have seen their electric bills increase over a short period of time,” Patton said.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also agreed that the rule would negatively impact the state as a whole.
“Every West Virginian can feel the effects of this rule,” Capito said. “In our state, if you don’t work in the coal industry … you have a friend who is, you have a classmate who was, you have somebody who goes to your church who is very much affected by this. This will shake the economy of our state, and our local communities to our very core.”