Blocking of Coal Plant License Could Lead to Saving Our Coral Reefs

A recent decision by The Environmental Appeals Board blocked the EPA from issuing a license for a new coal plant addition in Vernal, Utah, near Salt Lake City. This one decision may seem insignificant on the surface, but it could be the first in a chain of events that could lead to more solar and wind power, as well as salvation for marine life, particularly coral reefs.

The Appeals Board reversed the EPA’s earlier decision to grant a permit to Bonanza Coal Power Plant after a Petition for Review was filed by lawyers of the Sierra Club, Western Resource Advocates, and Environmental Defense. The original permit did not contain any requirements regarding carbon dioxide emissions, despite the 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA (PDF) that granted power to the EPA to make decisions and regulations regarding carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. In its decision on Thursday, the board sent the permit back to the local EPA office for review. The office must consider whether the Bonanza plant must follow the strictest guidelines for carbon dioxide emissions, and explain its decision thoroughly. The decision also warned the EPA that it needs to consider a nationwide standard for CO2 emissions.

The Bonanza plant is not the only plant that will be affected by this decision. “[T]his is an issue of national scope that has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding,” the board wrote. The decision effectively placed over 100 coal plants in question, including two others in Utah: the 270-megawatt Sevier Power coal-fired plant proposed for Sigurd (who’s state license is currently being reviewed by the Utah Supreme Court) and the 900-megawatt Unit 3 of the Intermountain Power Plant in Delta (sent for review to the Utah Air Quality Board).

Most of the greater decisions of the EPA on how to handle these new questions in the licensing process will occur after the Obama administration has taken power, giving the new President one of his first opportunities to affect climate change. If decisions are made to require stricter standards on carbon dioxide emissions, extra (and costly) measures will have to be taken in all new coal plants in order to receive a license. With the credit crunch already affecting the abilities of most businesses to consider any new projects, adding in the potential fallout of this decision could cause many new plants not to be built.

“Essentially what this decision does is it gives the Obama administration a clean slate to decide what our nation’s energy future should be,” said Joanne Spalding, the senior attorney at the Sierra Club who argued the case before the board. “It puts it back in the lap of an Obama EPA to determine how to treat greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, and it gives the opportunity to establish policies that will essentially favor clean energy and impose restrictions on fossil fuels that emit lots of greenhouse gases.”

The potential fallout to coal plants could be a boon to wind and solar energy. Those looking to stay in the energy business may have to consider turning to cleaner renewable energy sources if coal technology and plants become too expensive.

“Where do you think that money is going to go? It’s going to go to wind. It’s going to go to solar. It’s going to go to something that’s going to get built,” Sierra Club’s chief climate counsel, David Bookbinder said. “This is incredibly good for green energy.”

Another development to watch will be the effect if the Obama administration gives incentives to clean energy, as promised during his campaign. Increased costs in the way of business as usual, coupled with tax benefits to change their ways could be the winning formula to push forward cleaner energy in the United States.

By simply cutting our carbon dioxide output, as the leading country of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, America could inadvertently be taking steps to help the ocean, especially coral reefs. The world’s oceans have absorbed approximately 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere during the industrial age. Despite most research focusing on what the emissions do to the climate, there is a drastic change going on under water.

The increased presence of CO2 in the atmosphere leads to an acidification of the ocean’s water. If emissions stay at their current level, the acidification of the water could reach a point unseen for millions of years. “I think in order to find something that is as extreme as what we continue to do this century, you have to go back to when the dinosaurs became extinct, 65 million years ago,” said Ken Caldeira, a Stanford professor. The harm done to our coral reefs, and other ocean creatures that make their skeletons out of calcium, could be disastrous. The last time that ocean conditions became as they are predicted to be, coral was affected for two million years. We could be facing a planet without some of the most breathtaking natural elements of our world, like the Great Barrier Reef.

While it will take a drastic overhaul of our policies and practices to truly affect the changes going on underwater, the decision by the EPA Appeals Board is a step in the right direction. Coupled with the chance for the new administration to make substantial decisions on CO2 output, we could be at the beginning of a revolution. If wind and solar will truly benefit during these trying economic times, and if we can save our coral reefs and other ocean creatures will only be seen in time.

Photos courtesy of Flickr users Zé Eduardo and davipt.

Published in: on November 18, 2008 at 10:42 am Comments Off on Blocking of Coal Plant License Could Lead to Saving Our Coral Reefs

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