Trump or not, Pa. coal plants have long been on the way out

As President Trump last week announced that he was ending what he deemed President Barack Obama’s “war on coal,” there was quieter news with perhaps more direct impact on Pennsylvania’s coal industry and environment.

General Electric said it had orders for two state-of-the-art gas turbines for a power plant to be built in Jackson Township, Cambria County. The new CPV Fairview Energy Center will power more than a million homes by 2020, producing far fewer greenhouse gases than would a coal-fired plant.

It was another example that neither president has, or had, control over a sweeping change rattling the Pennsylvania coal industry while helping curb pollution:  raw economics.

King Coal was dethroned last year by natural gas as the top fuel choice in electric generation in the state. An Inquirer analysis shows that the change began long before Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, which Trump eliminated last week with an executive order of his own.

From 2010 through 2015, the most recent data available, total greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired plants in Pennsylvania fell by almost one-quarter. That’s largely because plants are either shutting down periodically, closing entirely or converting to natural gas being extracted from the Marcellus Shale. Greenhouse gases trap heat and scientists say they contribute to climate change.

One of Pennsylvania’s biggest coal-fired plants - Homer City - filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this year so it could reorganize. It has 250 employees.  A representative for General Electric, Homer City’s parent company, did not respond to a request to comment.

Stephanie Walton, a spokeswoman for FirstEnergy, which once had four coal-fired plants in Pennsylvania, said the company is down to one: Bruce Mansfield in Shippingport in the far western part of the state.  But even that could be in jeopardy.

Walton said that FirstEnergy is evaluating all its plants over the next 18 months.

“That could mean deactivating, or retiring plants,” Walton said of the evaluation, which she noted is the result of “challenges with the competitive market.”

Bruce Mansfield uses seven millions tons of coal a year and employs 350 people.

Walton said current economic conditions have nothing to do with Obama’s regulations, although she noted that his administration’s rules have hurt the industry in the past.

Other industry observers agree that the future for coal appears bleak.

“Because Pennsylvania has such an abundance of cheap natural gas, it’s driving electric power generation away from coal,” says David Hess, a former head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “It has nothing to do with anything else.”

Hess said that the state is likely to meet Obama’s Clean Power Plan rules limiting greenhouse gases emitted by coal-fired plants - even with Trump’s rollback.  Obama introduced the plan but it never went into effect because of a court challenge.

“Pennsylvania is on the path to meeting the clean power plan because of natural gas,” Hess said. “With or without that rule, we are on our way to meeting it.”

Peter DeCarlo agrees. He’s an assistant professor who studies atmospheric chemistry in Drexel’s College of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences and has looked at the impact of the Marcellus Shale.

“In terms of Pennsylvania, the Trump rollback isn’t really going to change much of what was happening,” DeCarlo said.  “Natural gas is cheap and abundant. It’s much easier to build a natural gas plant than a coal plant.  Other issues were already pushing coal out of being competitive.”

The Obama rules sought to curb dioxide emissions in the power sector by 32 percent by 2030.  Nitrous oxide and methane are the two other greenhouse gas emissions monitored by the EPA. 

Coal-fired plants produce large amounts of carbon dioxide in proportion to the other greenhouse gases.  So cutting the use of coal curbs greenhouse gases by default.

Between 2014 and 2016, the state approved 47 plants fired by natural gas, according to Karen Feridun, who is with the activist group Pennsylvanians against Fracking.  She said the group is alarmed by the high number.

"Trading one climate killer for another is not the solution," Feridun said.

If the megawatts of all the approved plans were added together, the capacity could equal all the current coal-fired plants in the region.

Less demand for coal by plants mean less work for miners. The number of coal mining jobs plunged 39 percent over the last five years, from 8,665 workers to 5,324, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  That’s part of the “war on coal” Trump has pledged to reverse and what got him so many votes in the middle and western areas of Pennsylvania, a swing state in the presidential election.

But the switch to natural gas is being watched with caution by environmentalists and scientists. The issue: methane.

Methane can be a byproduct of exploration, extraction and transport associated with unconventional natural gas extraction, which includes hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”  Trump is also seeking to rewrite rules on methane emissions.

Methane exists in much smaller amounts in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but is much more efficient in terms of trapping heat.  So DeCarlo says a growth in methane could be worrisome.

DeCarlo’s testing showed a rise in methane in the Marcellus Shale region of Northeastern Pennsylvania - even though the number of wells being drilled had fallen.  In some areas, methane levels rose by 300 percent, he determined.

So where is that methane coming from?

“That is the million dollar question,” he said, noting that compressor stations can leak methane as can pipelines. About 20 percent of the time his group took measurements near pipelines, they showed elevated levels compared with the surrounding area.

DeCarlo said it’s unknown whether the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the closure of coal plants will eventually be offset by a rise in methane emitted from the natural gas infrastructure.

The Wolf administration is seeking to reduce methane emission in the natural gas industry.  As part of that effort, the state Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing permitting for fracking and other unconventional natural gas sites and operations.

Charles McPhedran, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group, said he, too, is concerned about the rise of methane.  He was part of an appeal against the Homer City coal-fired plant that led to better enforcement limits on sulfur dioxide emissions there.

While still keeping an eye on coal, environmental groups such as his have already turned much of their attention to the natural gas industry.

“What we need is not to substitute another fossil fuel for coal, what we need is a decisive switch to renewable energy,” he said. “We can’t combust our way out of climate change.”