Energy Policy:

Sierra Club's Nilles discusses future of coal, EPA air regulations

With the future of coal in limbo as new air regulations are expected to come online during President Obama's second term, how successful has the environmental community been in influencing the discussion? During today's OnPoint, Bruce Nilles, senior director for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, discusses his expectations for how the Obama administration will address coal during its second term. He also explains the role low natural gas prices are playing in the planning of new power plants.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Bruce Nilles, the senior campaign director for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. Bruce, thanks for coming on the show.

Bruce Nilles: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Bruce, coal played a major role in the president campaign, with both candidates talking about the future and saying that there is some kind of future for coal in the U.S.'s energy policy. What's your expectation for how President Obama will handle coal during his second term?

Bruce Nilles: Well, I think the exciting piece is from our perspective, we're finally getting serious about climate change. Coal today is no longer a good bet. In fact, no one in their right mind is building a new proposed coal plant in the United States, because it makes no sense economically. So in the last four years, only one coal plant has broken ground. At the same time, we've made record investments in clean energy, and a lot of that is because what the president has been doing through the EPA is finally forcing coal to clean up its act. So coal is having to address mercury pollution, soot pollution, and once it has to factor in those costs, it makes no economic sense.

Monica Trauzzi: But the IEA predicts that worldwide demand for coal will increase 21 percent through 2025, so how does that square with what you're saying, and how does what the Obama administration is doing on air regulations sort of account for that increased use of coal?

Bruce Nilles: Well, the history in the United States is that coal played a big part, looking back over the last few decades. But if you look forward, no one is proposing new coal, and coal really makes no economic sense here in the United States today if you have to account for the pollution, both air and water pollution. So when you look at the projections for new coal in the U.S., our own information agency says no new coal through 2040. So coal is essentially done in the U.S., and this gives us a chance to really leadership to the rest of the world that you don't need coal, and in fact, we're investing in record amounts of clean energy. We're going to have the best year ever for wind power this year.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. A lot of people would disagree with what you're contending on the future of coal. You know, what do you expect legislatively from Congress over the next four years? We still have a divided Congress.

Bruce Nilles: Yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: It's unclear what energy policy is going to look like. We have the PTC extension that's sort of looming. If that's not extended, then what does that sort of foreshadow to you about energy policy coming out of Congress?

Bruce Nilles: I think it's fair to say we're not expecting a huge amount out of Congress over the next two to four years, but the real action on energy policy is not in Congress. It's happening through a mix of what EPA is doing and what's happening at the state level. So there's enormously exciting things going on literally state by state. If you look at the State of Texas, the biggest proposed investment in that state over the next three to five years is wind power. It's not coal, it's not gas, it's investing in clean energy. Texas isn't doing this because it believes in solving climate change. It's doing it because it's good economics. And there are literally mayors and governors around the country who are working to phase out coal and replace it with clean energy. So that's where the real action is, and that's where we're spending the bulk of our time.

Monica Trauzzi: And in Texas specifically, Energy Texas Power recently cancelled its plans to build a new plant, and what they cited, and they said this was in large part due to the low price of natural gas. How much of a game-changer is natural gas in this discussion?

Bruce Nilles: So gas has certainly played a role as the prices have come down over the last couple of years, but it's one of three factors. One is the price of coal has gone up, essentially doubled in the last five years. Second, wind has, the prices of wind and solar have come down, making them much more competitive. Wind this year is going to install more than it ever has in its history. And then last, the energy efficiency programs we put in place over the last few years, including with the stimulus, have really helped lower projections of energy demand. So if you don't need as much electricity, then you certainly don't need to build a bunch of new fossil fuel units.

Monica Trauzzi: The Sierra Club has been criticized and in some instances even mocked for your campaign against coal. Why don't you consider things like carbon capture and storage viable options? I mean, we have a growing energy, energy demands here in the United States. Coal will be required in some way. Why isn't CCS an option that you look at positively?

Bruce Nilles: Well, there's a bunch of problems. Coal has a horrendous life cycle, from the mining, through the burning, through the coal ash disposable. CCS, first and foremost, does nothing about the mining practices, the destroying mountains in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia. But even more important, it's not just the Sierra Club. We have the endorsement of the likes of Mayor Bloomberg of New York, who is a big supporter of our campaign, because it's really transitioning away from an old 19th century technology to a clean energy future. And so whether it's the mayor in San Antonio who announced he was shutting down his coal plant and replacing it with a mix of solar and clean energy, or the fact that Oregon and Washington shut down their coal plants, I mean, there's a lot of progress going on at the local level, because people want to solve climate change, and they want to do something about the air pollution and water pollution associated with coal. So while Congress continues to dither, there's actually really progress, amazing progress going on around the country.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. A lot to debate here. We'll end it right there. The debate continues. Thanks for coming on the show.

Bruce Nilles: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]

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