Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Virginia, Coal Country for Centuries, Now Embraces Carbon Regulations

Coal provides about 20 percent of Virginia's ’s power, just a few years ago it was providing half of its electricity. The shift means it's already 80 percent of the way toward compliance with the EPA's Clean Power Plan. (Credit: Dominion Resources' Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center /Dominion) Click to Enlarge.
Nestled on the eastern edge of Appalachian coal country, with a 267-year history of mining its reserves, Virginia seems an unlikely candidate to become one of the country's biggest success stories in adapting to the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan.

But when the agency finalizes its rules this summer, Virginia will not be among the states fighting for it to be overturned.  Instead, it is already well on its way to complying.  The state has been moving away from coal-fired electricity for the past decade, and the effects of climate change—particularly along the Atlantic coast—already has its attention.

Opposition to following the EPA's mandate has been "relatively muted," said Walton Shepherd, a policy expert on energy and carbon pollution standards at the Natural Resources Defense Council.  "It isn't the chorus that you would expect, for a lot of reasons specific to Virginia," he said.  "The main one is coal's long-term downward trajectory.  From a sheer emissions standpoint, Virginia was already on this path."

The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which mandates cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030 using the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act, has faced serious pushback from a dozen states, fossil fuel companies and Republicans in Congress.

In Virginia, coal still dictates the economy in some southwestern parts of the state; one of the nation's largest energy companies, Dominion Resources, is headquartered in Richmond; and the nation's largest coal export facility is on the coast in Norfolk.  Until recently, coal accounted for nearly half of the electricity generated in the state; now it's less than a quarter.

The once reliably conservative state has shifted politically in the last decade—it now has a Democratic governor in Terry McAuliffe and two Democratic senators, and it voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—but its move away from coal has also been shaped by economic forces.

With coal values plummeting and pollution regulations increasing, 11 coal-fired power plants have shuttered their doors, converted to natural gas or biomass, or announced plans to close or convert since 2008, according to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.  Nuclear energy and natural gas now dominate the state's power sector.  Experts say Virginia is already 80 percent of the way toward its proposed target of reducing emissions 38 percent by 2030.  Environmentalists argue expanding renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency should make up the remaining 20 percent.  State officials said it will be more complicated than that, but possible.

Read more at Virginia, Coal Country for Centuries, Now Embraces Carbon Regulations

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