Building new coal-fired power plants is getting tougher almost every week. Over the past few months, decisions by over a dozen state agencies and courts and the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board have begun to subject new coal-fired power plants to increased legal scrutiny over their emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases that cause global warming. These decisions are coming not a moment too soon. Burning coal for electricity is one of the single greatest sources of greenhouse gas pollution, as well as the mercury and other air pollutants that poison our lakes and rivers. It’s going to be tough enough to deal with emissions from existing coal-fired power plants in the Midwest as we attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 (the most common reduction goals being discussed by scientists and political leaders). Building new coal-fired power plants without effective and viable carbon capture and sequestration (meaning the CO2 stays sequestered, is geologically safe, and does not impact drinking water supplies) would totally undermine efforts to address climate change and will end up costing the Great Lakes region tremendously down the road.
Despite this new legal and environmental reality, there are at least 8 new or expanded coal-fired power plants being proposed in Michigan. With little fanfare, Michigan has become one of the national hotspots for new coal-fired power plants, perhaps because the state has yet to take a legislative or regulatory stand against the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Four of the proposed coal-fired power plants that have already submitted permit applications would emit at least 15 million tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases per year, and more than 750 million tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases over their expected 50 year lives. For details, see an excellent slide show presentation prepared by the Clean Energy Now coalition on stopping the Michigan coal rush (large file, may take a few moments to download).
A coalition of environmental organizations, including the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, recently sent a detailed legal memorandum to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm laying out the state’s legal authority and duty to prohibit or strictly limit the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the four major coal-fired power plants that are currently seeking air pollution permits. The legal memorandum not only covers federal law (namely the Clean Air Act), but Michigan’s unique and powerful state law – the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). MEPA requires the selection of alternatives that would minimize or avoid the environmental pollution, impairment, and destruction that CO2 emissions from the proposed coal-fired power plants would cause.
Governor Granholm and the leaders of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and new Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth will soon have a choice to make about the future of energy in the state. They can take the lead with their legal authority and duty to address greenhouse gas pollution from the proposed coal-fired power plants, or they can duck the issue and saddle the state with litigation and uncertain future costs over pollution controls. There’s also a chance the new Obama administration will take federal action early in 2009 to regulate greenhouse gas pollution, but the state shouldn’t wait for leadership from Washington on this important issue.