Earlier this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the latest step in the undoing of pollution controls many industries find inconvenient, proposing weakening the rules on disposal of vast amounts of coal ash generated by power plants.
The announcement had particular significance for Indiana, which is one of the heaviest users of coal to generate electric power. Electric plants dispose of the ash generated when coal is burned by burying it in a landfill or washing it into holding ponds. Many of those ponds are improperly lined to prevent leakage and allow water contaminated with dangerous chemicals to leach into the groundwater or, in the case of severe storms, be washed directly into waterways.
Until the Obama administration proposed inspection and monitoring rules to control coal-ash disposal, the issue had been left to the states. Indiana has more coal-ash-disposal ponds than any other state, and regulation of them, before the national rules were issued in 2015, was minimal.
This summer, a New York Times analysis identified 85 environmental rules the Trump administration has either reversed or is in the process of reversing. Easing requirements for dealing with coal ash is just one of many ways the administration is seeking to shore up the coal industry.
The EPA proposal would set back deadlines for companies to close improperly lined ash ponds, said Jodi Perras, deputy regional director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. It also would loosen standards for some of the dangerous metals the ash effluent might contain, such as selenium and arsenic.
She predicts the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations will quickly be filing lawsuits to stop the proposed rule changes.
But whatever the outcome of that fight, Perras says, the administration's efforts to keep coal competitive will fail. Regulatory breaks from Washington can't alter the fact that coal is dirtier and more expensive to use than natural gas and alternative energy sources.
NIPSCO may close its last coal-fired electric-generation facility by 2028, and AEP is moving toward reducing or ending its reliance on coal. "These are decisions that utilities are still making," Perras said, "and I don't see them reversing direction. Coal is still on the way out, and it's only accelerating."
A new tracking tool developed by the Rockefeller Institute of Government can help lawmakers and others who try to think about the future of energy put things into perspective. The tool tracks electricity production state by state over the past 29 years, showing how much power has been generated by coal, natural gas, nuclear reactors and renewables.
In 2008, 94.2% of Indiana's electricity net generation — which the institute defines as total electricity minus electricity used in production — came from coal. In 2018, just a decade later, that number was 68.3%. In 2008 in Michigan, coal-produced power accounted for 60.7% of electricity net generation; in 2018, that percentage was 36.5. The Rockefeller site also tracks carbon-dioxide emissions through 2017. In that year, Indiana was seventh-highest in the country.
Rather than vainly hope the effort to undo decades of efforts to protect the environment will "save" the coal industry, policymakers in Indiana should be preparing for the transition, trying to make the state as hospitable as possible for alternative energy producers and offering training and support to the state's remaining coal miners whose jobs, through no fault of their own, are not likely to be around forever.