Events over the last month have illustrated the difficulty of establishing a coherent national policy concerning the fuels that will power our society. While the Obama administration has articulated its preferred approach, the actual policy will be determined by market forces and a series of largely uncoordinated decisions reached within many separate statutory schemes. In recent days, potential regulatory choke points have emerged simultaneously for all major fuels.
The country's baseload source of energy is coal. The EPA has announced new rules to limit emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic airborne chemicals (including mercury, arsenic) from electric power plants, which may require retirement of older facilities that cannot be upgraded cost-effectively. The agency also is considering whether to tighten the core air pollution rules (the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which limit air emissions of such chemicals as ozone and sulfur dioxide based entirely on their health effects), although the schedule has slipped since the fall elections. The EPA has taken steps to restrict coal mining by mountain top removal and is considering an option under which coal ash wastes would be treated as hazardous wastes. Taken together, these regulatory initiatives will increase the relative costs and decrease the attractiveness of coal-fired electricity.