EPA Head Misleads The Public in Her Crusade against Coal

Lisa Jackson unfairly trashes coal, an affordable, domestic energy source that has only gotten cleaner.


Thomas Pyle is the president of the Institute for Energy Research.

Last week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke at an event sponsored by the Sierra Club and made some serious accusations against coal-fired power plants. Jackson said that "In their [coal-fired power plants] entire history—50, 60, 70 years, or even 30 . . . they never found the time or the reason to clean up their act," (subscription-only). As the administration's head environmental regulator, Jackson has to know that this statement is blatantly false.

According to EPA itself, air-quality is now as clean as it's been since EPA started keeping records (EPA, Air Quality Trend. See also EPA, Our Nation's Air—Status and Trends through 2008). In part, this is because coal-fired power plants are much cleaner than in the past because of pollution control technologies. Since 1970, the six so-called criteria pollutants have declined significantly, even though coal use by coal-fired plants has nearly tripled (EIA, Annual Energy Review 2010, Table 7.3 Coal Consumption by Sector, 1949–2010).

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Here is a graphic from EPA's website which shows that pollution has fallen by 63 percent even as GDP increased by 204 percent, energy consumption grew by 41 percent, and population grew by 50 percent (EIA, Air Quality Trends, Comparison of Growth Areas and Emission, 1970-2009. See also EPA, Air Quality Trends).

EPA graph

Those are the overall trends. The 63 percent reduction in pollution emissions came from not only coal-fired power plants, but other emissions sources as well. Coal-fired power plants themselves have achieved large emissions reductions even though coal use has nearly tripled since 1970.

According to EPA data, from 1989 to 2009 alone, total coal use increased by 19 percent. Even though total coal use increased, total sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants fell by 62 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions fell by 76 percent. What is even more impressive about this reduction in emissions is that, as the chart above shows, large improvements occurred from 1970 to 1989 and yet coal-fired power plants continued to reduce air pollution emissions.

Percent Change in Coal Use

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After looking at the data, it is hard to see how Lisa Jackson could claim that coal-fired power plants "never found the time or the reason to clean up their act" over the last 30-70 years. Either she is an anti-coal crusader not concerned about the truth, or she is grossly negligent about basic air pollution facts. It is difficult to believe the Obama administration's head environmental regulator does not understand the basic facts about air quality and pollution emissions from coal-fired power plants. Given her statement, however, it is certainly possible.

The biggest challenge for coal-fired power plants is the Obama administration's unrelenting assault on the plants and their workers. Administrator Jackson has been the point person for this assault. EPA has promulgated carbon dioxide regulations on coal-fired power plants, they have proposed ozone rules, used special "guidance" in Appalachia to halt new coal mines, considered regulating coal ash as hazardous waste, and proposed regulations that will shutter 28 gigawatts of electricity generating capacity (most of which will be coal).

[See the 10 priciest years in history for gas.]

America's air quality has dramatically improved over the past 40 years and will continue to improve. It is an untold success story. The Obama administrator's head environmental regulator cannot be ignorant of our clean air success, but unless she was misquoted, either she is ignorant or she is deliberately misleading the American people about coal-fired power plants' impressive reduction in pollution emissions and low cost of electricity generation. Whether it is ignorance or intentionally misleading the American people, either option speaks very poorly of Administrator Jackson.

  • See a slide show of a reality check on U.S. energy sources.
  • See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.
  • See the 10 priciest years in history for gas.