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Coal in the Balance

The government shutdown may be having an effect on the EPA’s drive to finalize a new regulation aimed at shutting down coal-fired power in the United States, but maybe not.  After all, given that the EPA essentially farms out much of its regulatory design to environmental groups, the Sierra Club and NRDC may be prepared to hand the finished regulation over when the shutdown ends.  Nothing like having private-sector adjuncts for the administrative state.

The Obama EPA claims that its new coal regulation won’t actually ban coal-fired power; you’ll just have to have to use very expensive carbon-capture and storage technology (or “sequestration” as it used to be called, before the budget process made that term into a dirty word for liberals).  How expensive?  The Wall Street Journal offers a very sobering look in today’s edition:

Mississippi Power Co.’s Kemper County plant here, meant to showcase technology for generating clean electricity from low-quality coal, ranks as one of the most-expensive U.S. fossil-fuel projects ever—at $4.7 billion and rising. Mississippi Power’s 186,000 customers, who live in one of the poorest regions of the country, are reeling at double-digit rate increases. And even Mississippi Power’s parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co. has said Kemper shouldn’t be used as a nationwide model.

$4.7 billion eh?  How much electricity will the plant generate when it is finally up and running?  Just 582 megawatts.  This makes the old expensive nuclear plants look cheap by comparison.  While “Federal officials say it isn’t unusual for new technology to be expensive at first and that clean coal’s costs should come down over time,” my prediction is that this plant will be the Synfuels Corp of our era.  (Synfuels, one of Jimmy Carter’s boondoggles, was sold for pennies on the dollar in the early 1980s.)  Even Southern Co is wary:

But Southern last month said Kemper “cannot be consistently replicated on a national level” and therefore “should not serve as a primary basis for new emissions standards.”

But if carbon capture technology isn’t feasible, the new EPA regulation will be vulnerable to a legal challenge that it is “arbitrary and capricious.”  It may not matter, though; if investors and utilities shy away from coal power during the long legal limbo and in the face of an aggressive EPA, it may do the job of killing coal just as anti-nuclear agitation and endless litigation contributed to killing America’s nuclear industry back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

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