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There’s a Hefty Price to Pay for Driving Down U.S. Coal Usage

coal miningby The Oklahoman Editorial Board 

Reports of the demise of coal-fired power plants are greatly exacerbated by reality. Using coal to make electricity isn’t going away any time soon. And the coal plants that are going away the soonest account for relatively little carbon emissions.

One of the state’s two largest investor-owned utilities (PSO) is moving away from coal, but it won’t be out of the coal business until at least 2026. The other utility, Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co., remains committed to coal even though it will require expensive upgrades to its generating station near Red Rock.

Coal remains the cheapest way to make power, which is one reason it will stay in the fuel mix despite the Obama administration’s attempt to get rid of it and the environmental community’s demand that coal be kept underground for as long as it has been already.

High-profile public policy initiatives such as the administration’s latest round of coal crackdowns give the impression that it’s only a matter of months before no American power is made from American coal. Hardly.

But even OG&E is moving partly away from coal, announcing plans to convert two of its three plants in Muskogee from coal to natural gas. At Red Rock, it wants to install scrubbers to comply with environmental regulations.

A spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, a leading attack dog when it comes to coal, described OG&E’s strategy as a “half step in the right direction.” Actually it’s a full step in making sure customers have reliable power at the lowest possible cost, something in which the Sierra Club barkers have absolutely no interest.

USA Today reported last week that the power industry’s plan to retire more than 10 percent of its coal-fired generators in 10 years time “will do almost nothing” to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. One reason is that the plants are mostly smaller, older facilities that accounted for only 4 percent of all carbon dioxide emitted last year by U.S. coal plants. None of the 140 plants ranks among the top 100 for emissions.

Meeting the administration’s goal of cutting emissions by 30 percent between now and 2030 will require far more steps than what’s been announced so far. Regardless, it also will require consumers to open their wallets far more than they’ve been doing. This is what makes the OG&E approach appealing. It has no choice but to reduce emissions. It does have a choice to continue using American coal and keep it in the mix along with natural gas and wind.

The worst-offending coal plants in the United States are in five states — Texas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Alabama and Georgia. USA Today reported that the top 100 carbon dioxide emitters account for 25 percent of all coal plant emissions in this country while representing only 2 percent of generating units.

Closing these plants, which won’t happen any time soon, would likely meet the administration’s goals even if OG&E and other utilities did nothing. But they are doing something, phasing out many coal plants or putting in orders for scrubbers.

The administration is ostensibly giving weight to how much reliance a particular state has on coal. Coal-dependent West Virginia, for example, may have to shoot for a 20 percent reduction in emissions. New York faces a reduction of greater than 40 percent.

In theory, state governments will have leeway in determining how best to cut emissions. Given the experience with Obamacare, we’ll believe that when we see it. The only thing certain for now is that much higher electricity prices are in the offing.

Most consumers would prefer higher prices to a decline in reliability. This is another reason that we like OG&E’s approach.

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The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Gary Pierson, President and CEO of The Oklahoma Publishing Company; Christopher P. Reen, president and publisher of The Oklahoman; Kelly Dyer Fry, editor and vice president of news; Christy Gaylord Everest, member at large; J.E. McReynolds, Opinion editor; Owen Canfield III. chief editorial writer; and Ray Carter, editorial writer. This article was published at NewsOK.