Climate impacts of coal plants

From Global Energy Monitor

Coal-fired power plants are responsible for one-third of America’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—about the same amount as all transportation sources -- cars, SUVs, trucks, buses, planes, ships, and trains -- combined.[1]

According to the 2009 WildEarth Guardians report "Undermining the Climate", coal-fired power plants released 80% of all greenhouse gases from the U.S. electricity generation sector, including more than 2.17 billion tons (1.96 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide—nearly 30% of the nation’s total greenhouse gas inventory and 32% of all carbon dioxide released in the U.S., making coal-fired power plants the largest single source of carbon dioxide in the country.[2]

A 1000 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant produces approximately the same amount of global warming as 1.2 million cars.[3]

Coal-to-liquids technology will have particularly intensive climate effects. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, using liquefied coal as a fuel source would produce 119 percent greater greenhouse gas emissions than using petroleum-based fuel.[4]

For 1999, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that coal plants produced 2.095 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. This represented a 4% improvement from the 2.117 pounds per kilowatt hour in 1998.[5]

James Hansen and Coal

NASA scientist James Hansen, who reported to the U.S. Congress that climate change was underway in 1988, has been particularly critical of the coal industry, stating that coal contributes the largest percentage of anthropogenic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.[6] He acknowledges that a molecule of carbon dioxide emitted from burning coal has the same effect as a molecule emitted from burning oil, but that the difference is where the fuel originally resides. He says that most oil comes from Russia and Saudi Arabia, and that no matter how fuel-efficient automobiles become, the oil will eventually be burned and the carbon dioxide emitted. In a 2007 testimony before the Iowa Utilities Board, he stated that the United States has a large reservoir of coal, which makes it a resource that can be controlled through action by U.S. politicians, unlike oil which is controlled by other countries.[6] He and other climate scientists have called for coal phase out completely by the year 2030.[7]

Hansen has said that phasing out coal “is 80% of the solution to the global warming crisis.”[8] As pointed out in Ted Nace's Climate Hope, Hansen’s reasons for emphasizing coal were fourfold:

  • The amount of carbon remaining in the ground in oil and gas reserves is much smaller than the amount of carbon contained in coal reserves.[9]
  • "Second, coal is the most carbon intense of the fossil fuels. Producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity from coal produces about 2.4 pounds of carbon dioxide, while producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity from natural gas produces about 1 pound of carbon dioxide. While coal produces half of the electricity used in the United States, it is responsible for 80 percent of the carbon dioxide released by electric utilities."[10]
  • "Third, coal consumption is far more concentrated than the use of other fossil fuels. A mere six hundred large coal-burning power plants account for nearly all coal usage, in contrast to the tens of millions of cars, trucks, planes, homes, businesses, and factories that burn oil and gas. Thus, reducing emissions from coal is a far simpler task."[10]
  • "Fourth, production of oil and gas is primarily located in countries that American domestic energy policy has little or no ability to control. Any reduction in use by the United States might well be consumed by other countries. In contrast, our ability to control the consumption of coal is substantial, since the United States leads the rest of the world in the size of its coal reserves."[10]

Cancellation of Longleaf air permit on climate grounds

In June, 2008, Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore invalidated the air pollution permit required to begin construction of Longleaf, a proposed 1200 MW plant in Georgia. The judge cited the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency decision that carbon dioxide is subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act as a pollutant. As originally permitted, the plant would have emitted 9 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. The original permit placed no restrictions on the amount of carbon dioxide the plant could emit.[11]

A New Precedent to Tackle Climate Change

In August 2008, in a landmark agreement, one of the America’s largest builders of coal-fired power plants was forced to give investors detailed warnings about the risks that climate change poses to its business. The agreement between New York’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, and Xcel Energy of Minneapolis, “could open a broad new front in efforts by environmental groups to pressure the energy industry into reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming,” said the New York Times.[12]

Although shareholder resolutions are gathering a pace against big oil and coal, “this really takes it another step, by making it a settlement agreement that should have an impact across the industry,” argued Dan Bakal, the director of electric power programs at Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmental groups.

According to the New York Times: “Cuomo subpoenaed Xcel and four other companies last September, seeking to determine whether their efforts to build new coal-fired power plants posed risks not disclosed to investors, like future lawsuits or higher costs to comply with possible regulations restricting carbon emissions.”[12]

“This landmark agreement sets a new industry wide precedent that will force companies to disclose the true financial risks that climate change poses to their investors,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement.[13] “Coal-fired power plants can significantly contribute to global warming, and investors have the right to know all the associated risks.”

Under the agreement, Xcel had to disclose the financial risks of lawsuits and of federal or state court decisions that would affect its business. The company will also analyze and disclosed the “material financial risks” to itself associated with climate change.[12]

Climate change and coal mining

The Bureau of Land Management determined that Powder River Basin coal mines released 13.9% of the nation’s carbon dioxide and 42% of all carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants in 2006. Based on 2007 coal production data and 2007 U.S. greenhouse gas emission data, Powder River Basin coal contributed to 13.04% of the nations’ carbon dioxide and 40% of all carbon dioxide released by coal-fired power plants.[2] In the summer of 2010, a coalition of environmental groups - the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Santa Fe-based group WildEarth Guardians - filed lawsuits to stop the BLM from selling 5.8 billion tons of federal coal. The suits asked the Department of Interior's Board of Land Appeals to make the BLM redo its environmental impact statements for two sets of leases in the basin because they didn't adequately account for the climate impacts of mining and burning coal. The coalition filed a separate lawsuit in federal court to stop the sale of 410 million tons of coal and to force the BLM to overhaul its leasing program as a whole. The coalition wants the BLM to cap leasing based on the potential environmental impacts, or require mining companies to mitigate those impacts. In 2008, environmentalists sued the U.S. Forest Service for permitting Colorado's West Elk Mine to vent methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. As of 2010, that case is still unresolved.[14]

Regulation of greenhouse gases

April 2009: EPA declares greenhouse gases a threat to public health and welfare

Following from the April 2007 Supreme Court ruling on Massachusetts v. EPA, which found that the Environmental Protection Agency must regulate greenhouse gases if they are a threat to human welfare, EPA conducted a scientific review to determine whether carbon dioxide emissions constitute human endangerment. On April 18, 2009, EPA declared carbon dixodide and five other heat-trapping gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride) to be pollutants that threaten public health and welfare. The declaration set into motion a process of regulating carbon dioxide and other gases emitted by coal-fired power plants and synfuels plants.[15][16][17]

December 2009: EPA finalizes endangerment finding

On December 7, 2009, EPA finalized its endangerment finding that greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide are a threat to human health and welfare. The announcement was the final step in the April 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, which found that under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must regulate greenhouse gas emissions if they endanger public health and welfare. The EPA's decision paves the way for new regulation of emissions from power plants, factories, and automobiles. Announced on the first day of international climate talks at COP15 in Copenhagen, the move gives President Obama new regulatory powers that could help gain consensus in efforts to curb global warming. Both Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson have said they prefer climate change legislation as a means of regulating global warming pollution, but the finding provides an alternative means of establishing emissions limits if the legislation fails.[18][19]

March 2010: EPA Waits for 2013 to regulate carbon emissions from 50,000 to 75,000 tons a year

On March 3, 2010 EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the Senate Appropriations panel reviewing EPA's budget that the agency would focus on large polluters spewing more than 75,000 tons a year. “It will probably be at least two years before we would look at something like, say, a 50,000 threshold,” Jackson said. The initial phase of greenhouse-gas rules will go into effect in 2011 said Jackson.[20]

Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia on March 4, 2010 introduced legislation that would delay the EPA's carbon rules. The bill calls for a "two-year suspension" that will give Congress “the time it needs to address an issue as complicated and expansive as our energy future." Two House Democrats, West Virginia’s Nick Rahall and Virginia’s Rick Boucher, also introduced legislation that would put EPA's greenhouse gas regulations for so-called “stationary sources” on hold for two years. Rep. Rahall was co-author of the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House in June 2009 and would replace EPA direct regulation on carbon emissions.[21]

On March 29, 2010 Lisa Jackson of the EPA announced that industrial facilities and other stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions will not be required to have Clean Air Act permits until January 2011, allegedly to give industry more time to prepare for the regulations,[22]

December 2010: EPA sets timeline to clean up coal pollution

On December 23, 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its timeline for developing nationwide limits on global warming pollution from power plants, the largest single source of global warming pollution. EPA won’t propose any actual standards until July 2011, but the Agency said final standards would be issued by May 2012.[23]

The EPA regulation addresses existing sources, using the statutes of the Clean Air Act's New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) to impose limits in 2012 on the amount of CO2 the biggest polluters can emit. The EPA said it would cover 40 percent of U.S. emissions.[24].

The EPA has also been developing a permitting program for new (or substantially upgraded) sources. In May 2010, the EPA issued its "Tailoring Rule," determining which sources will need to get permits (very large sources). In November 2010, it issued "PSD and Title V Permitting Guidance for Greenhouse Gases," which detailed that the permitting program would be run much like existing permitting programs: through the states.[25]

The regulations will be applied to plants that were "grandfathered" (exempted) under the original Clean Air Act.[25]

Feb. 2011: House votes to block EPA regulation of GHGs

On Feb. 18, 2011, the Republican-controlled House voted to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. The 249-177 vote added the regulation ban to a spending bill that would fund the government through Sept. 30, 2011. Texas Republican Ted Poe pressed the anti-EPA measure. His Texas district is home to many oil refineries.[26]

Testimony on the climate impacts of coal

World's biggest fossil fuel emitters

It is estimated that the world's top dozen emitting nations (counting the European Union as a single emitter) account for 74 percent of global emissions from fossil fuels.[27]



  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2004,” April 2006.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Jeremy Nichols, "Undermining the Climate" WildEarth Guardians report, November 23, 2009.
  3. Barbara Freese and Steve Clemmer, "Gambling with Coal: How New Climate Laws Will Make Future Coal Plants More Expensive," Union of Concerned Scientists, September 2006, page 2.
  4. Testimony of Joseph Romm before Congress, September 5, 2007.
  5. "Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Generation of Electric Power in the United States," U.S. Energy Information Agency, July 2000
  6. 6.0 6.1 "State of Iowa, Before the Iowa Utilities Board: Direct Testimony of James E. Hansen" Columbia, November 5, 2007
  7. "Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?" Columbia, April 7, 2008
  8. Letter from James Hansen to Nevada governor Gibbons, April 14, 2008, at
  9. Historical Fossil Fuel Emissions and Remaining Reserves. Source: Adapted from James Hansen et al., “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” Open Atmospheric Science Journal (2008): page 11. Estimates for remaining oil, gas, and coal reserves are from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001: Mitigation, B. Metz et al., eds. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Ted Nace, Climate Hope, Chapter 1, published 2010
  11. Georgia court cites carbon in coal-plant ruling Reuters, June 30, 2008
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Nicholas Confessore, Xcel to Disclose Global Warming Risks,New York Times, August 27, 2008
  13. "Cuomo Reaches Landmark Agreement With Major Energy Company, Excel Energy, To Require Disclosure of Financial Risks of Climate Change to Investors", Media Release, August 27, 2008.
  14. Cally Carswell, "Trouble in the PRB", High Country News, November 9, 2010.
  15. John M. Broder, "E.P.A. Clears Way for Greenhouse Gas Rules," New York Times, April 17, 2009
  16. "EPA Finds Greenhouse Gases Pose Threat to Public Health, Welfare / Proposed Finding Comes in Response to 2007 Supreme Court Ruling," EPA news release, April 17, 2009
  17. "Proposed Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases under the Clean Air Act," EPA
  18. "EPA’s Carbon Decision Gives Obama Copenhagen Tool," Bloomberg, December 7, 2009.
  19. "EPA Moves to Regulate CO2 as a Hazard to Health," Time, December 7, 2009.
  20. "EPA Waits for 2013 on Carbon Emissions of 50,000 Tons a Year" Kim Chipman, Bloomberg March 3, 2010.
  21. "Rockefeller Introduces Bill to Delay EPA Carbon Rules" Simon Lomax, Bloomberg March 5, 2010.
  22. "EPA phases in permits for greenhouse pollution" Tom Doggett, Reuters, March 29, 2010,
  23. "EPA Sets Timetable on Carbon-Cutting Regs for Coal and Oil" Stacy Feldman, Reuters, December 23, 2010.
  24. "EPA Sets Timetable on Carbon-Cutting Regs for Coal and Oil" Stacy Feldman, Reuters, December 23, 2010.
  25. 25.0 25.1 "Putting EPA’s announcement on CO2 from power plants in context" Grist, Dec. 23, 2010.
  26. "House Votes To Block EPA From Regulating Greenhouse Gases" AP, Feb. 18, 2011.
  27. David Roberts, "A Way to Win the Climate Fight?" The American Prospect, May 10, 2011.

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