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Biden administration aims to speed up the demise of coal-fired power plants

The Prairie State Energy Campus near Marissa, Illinois, on Aug. 7, 2013. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Burning coal to generate electricity is rapidly declining in the United States.

President Joe Biden’s administration moved Thursday to speed up the demise of the climate-changing, lung-damaging fossil fuel while attempting to ease the transition to cleaner sources of energy.

A suite of new regulations adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide by 90%, demands steeper reductions of brain-damaging mercury pollution, clamps down on toxic metals dumped into lakes and rivers and orders the removal of hazardous coal ash from scores of unlined pits across the nation.

The Biden administration also put the gas industry on notice it might not continue to enjoy its recent economic advantages compared to coal. Any new gas-fired plants built in the United States will need to meet the same stringent limit on carbon dioxide pollution as existing coal plants.

“We are ensuring that the power sector has the information needed to prepare for the future with confidence, enabling strong investment and planning decisions,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Wednesday during a call with journalists. “These actions will also allow us to tackle the full array of threats that power plants pose to clean air, safe water and healthy land.”

U.S. power plants are second only to transportation in the amount of climate change pollution emitted into the atmosphere.

For now, though, existing gas-fired plants are exempt from the administration’s demand to limit carbon dioxide emissions. In February, Regan said the EPA plans to adopt separate rules for existing gas plants including other types of pollution disproportionately affecting low-income, Black and Latino neighbors — action that almost assuredly depends on the results of the 2024 election.

The regulations directed at coal plants will increase costs for energy companies that still rely on the fossil fuel and could force the closure of generators operating on slim margins. Activists who clamored for changes and repeatedly sued the EPA said the Biden EPA’s policies will force the industry to account for decades of damage to public health and the environment.

“Power plants for far too long have been able to get away with treating our waterways like an open sewer,” said Thomas Cmar, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit legal organization that challenged weaker coal ash and wastewater rules adopted by the Obama and Trump administrations. “It is long past time for this dangerous damaging practice to end.”

Despite dozens of coal plants closing in recent years, the industry has still been responsible for about a third of the heavy metals released into water nationally — more than any economic sector.

Operators of about 250 coal plants also dumped toxic ash into unlined pits regulated more loosely than household garbage landfills.

One of the sites that will face more stringent federal oversight is the former Waukegan Generating Station on Lake Michigan, a former ComEd coal plant ringed by two unlined ash ponds and an unlicensed landfill. Others include a Joliet quarry where ComEd and other companies dumped coal ash and a coal plant in Michigan City, Indiana, owned by the Northern Indiana Public Service Co., which had planned to excavate and safely dispose of only half of its waste.

Donnita Scully, environmental justice chair at the LaPorte County branch of the NAACP, said the only thing keeping the Michigan City plant’s waste from spilling into Lake Michigan is a fast-deteriorating steel wall.

“I’m concerned about the people who don’t know about this threat to their health,” Scully said.

The new regulations come at a time of rapid change in the nation’s energy mix.

Coal provided just 17% of the electricity generated in the United States last year, down from more than half a decade ago. Gas accounted for 42%, but in some states a combination of wind and solar energy, paired with battery storage for when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun doesn’t shine, provides most of the electricity during various times of year.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm announced the Biden administration will attempt to add more renewable energy to the electric grid by speeding up environmental reviews of new transmission lines and providing regulatory incentives to overhaul existing lines to carry more energy.

In many ways, Illinois is ahead of the federal government in moving toward cleaner energy.

A state law brokered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly outlaws coal- and gas-fired electricity by 2045.

But Illinois also provides a cautionary tale about the transition.

During the mid-2000s, five Chicago suburbs and dozens of Downstate communities agreed to help pay off more than $5 billion in debt for the Prairie State Generating Station — one of the Top 10 industrial sources of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the United States.

Municipal investors in the massive coal burner, including Batavia, Geneva, Naperville, St. Charles and Winnetka, helped block Pritzker’s more aggressive plans. So did Springfield, the state capital, which built a new coal plant around the same time even as private investors abandoned dozens of similar projects, scared off by skyrocketing construction costs and the likelihood that climate pollution eventually would be regulated.


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