Chicago Ends Coal Era, Canada Finalizes Regulations

Until late August, Chicago stood alone among major US cities operating not one but two coal plants within city limits. Both of these decrepit, toxic facilities have now burned their last batches of coal.

Both of these Model-T-era plants are closed.

The Fisk power plant (opened in 1903) and the Crawford plant (1924) provided electricity to close to 1 million homes at their peak.

They were Chicago’s two biggest sources of industrial carbon dioxide emissions, and were cited as a source of health issues in the primarily Latino areas in which they were located. It took a 10-year-long battle to shut them down.

"This marks a turning point from Chicago’s reliance on two highly polluting coal plants that use fuel from out-of-state to a cleaner energy future that’s less polluting and uses more Illinois wind and other clean resources," Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, told the Chicago Tribune.

Both closures were a result of owner Midwest Generation’s refusal to invest in upgrades to meet federal air pollution standards.

Coal has been tied to four of the major causes of mortality – heart disease, cancer, stroke and respiratory illnesses – and coal-fired plants account for almost half of all mercury emissions. It is estimated that coal pollution causes more than $100 billion in health costs annually.

The shutdown also mirrors the changing nature of coal economics: consumption in the US has slipped to its lowest levels since 1988 and more than 120 plants out of the 520 total have been shuttered in the past two and a half years.

Today, coal accounts for just 33% of US electricity, as contributions to the grid from cheap natural gas and non-hydro renewable sources continue to rise each quarter.

The Obama administration’s efforts to curb pollution caused by coal plants suffered a recent setback when a federal appeals court blocked the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to control emissions cross state borders, but the EPA has won twice in court attempts to block its ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and mercury emissions.

Still, expectations are that almost one-sixth of existing coal-fired plants -50 gigawatts – could be closed and replaced by natural gas within eight years, even under a Republican energy plan. The plan eliminates environmental regulations to benefit the coal industry, but even that can’t help with natural gas is so much cheaper.

Mitt Romney accuses the Obama administration of "waging a war on coal" because the EPA is attempting to issue regulations – decades overdue – that would reduce mercury, carbon and other pollution from power plants. 

Canada Signs Off On New Regulations

Canada is also tightening policies in an effort to phase out old  coal plants, but critics say they are a watered down version of previous proposals. 

The new rules phase out plants commissioned before 1975 after 50 years, or by the end of 2019 (whichever is sooner); and those commissioned between 1975-1986 will be phased out after 50 years or by the end of 2029. The measures take effect on July 1, 2015.

Previous draft rules set the limits at 45 years.

New coal plant would have to meet emissions requirements of 420 metric tons of carbon dioxide per gigawatt-hour – the same as generators powered by natural gas or renewable energy sources.

"Major changes to the draft rules will allow the oldest and dirtiest coal plants in Canada to run for up to half of a century from commissioning without any limits to their climate pollution. When these standards do apply, they will be weaker than originally proposed," says Pembina. "These changes mean Canada has gone from moving at a tortoise’s pace to a snail’s pace when it comes to regulating coal."

Coal-fired power currently accounts for 11% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Background on the changing nature of coal economics:

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