In a piece of rare good news for the coal industry out of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the agency has decided not to regulate coal mines as a source point for methane emissions.
On April 30, the Acting EPA Administrator, Bob Perciasepe, signed a letter denying a petition by the environmental group Earthjustice to add coal mines to the Clean Air Act (CAA) section 111 list of stationary source categories, said an EPA notice to be published in the May 8 Federal Register.
“The agency denied the petition because the EPA must prioritize its actions in light of limited resources and ongoing budget uncertainties, and at this time, cannot commit to conducting the process to determine whether coal mines should be added to the list of categories under CAA 111(b)(1)(A),” the notice said. “The letter explains in detail the EPA’s reasons for the denial.”
The EPA noted that any petitions for review of the letter denying the petition to list coal mines as a source category described in this notice must be filed in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., immediately blasted the decision. They sent a May 7 letter to Perciasepe urging the agency to reconsider its decision not to regulate methane emissions from coal mines. Reducing methane emissions could delay warming of the atmosphere and provide much needed time for the transition to a clean-energy economy, they said.
“The basis for your decision is described in an April 30, 2013, letter to Earthjustice, a public interest law firm that had petitioned EPA to take action to regulate methane emissions from coal mines,” they members of Congress wrote. “In your letter, you write that ‘the agency must prioritize its regulatory actions,’ that you face ‘limited resources and ongoing budget uncertainties,’ and that acting to reduce methane emissions from coal mines would ‘divert resources’ and would ‘likely require significant agency time and resources.’”
They added: “We understand that EPA – like the rest of the federal government – is facing budget constraints. We have opposed cuts to EPA’s funding and voted for proposals to repeal the ill-advised sequester that you currently face. But the answer to your budget problems cannot be to ignore a major source of pollution causing climate change. Your first obligation under the Clean Air Act is to determine if the emissions from coal mines ‘cause or contribute significantly to air pollution which reasonably may be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare,’ You are not fulfilling your responsibilities when you fail to make this determination, especially since it would not appear to require extensive resources.”
There is a presumption in the letter to Earthjustice that addressing one of the major sources of methane emissions in the nation is not a pressing priority, they said. “We categorically reject that presumption. It is true that measured over a century, U.S. methane emissions in 2011 represented just 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But methane is a potent short-lived climate pollutant. Methane stays in the atmosphere for just twelve years. During the short period of time it is in the atmosphere, methane is responsible for a disproportionately large amount of radiative forcing. Globally, the radiative forcing of methane emissions in 2011 was equivalent to 28% of the radiative forcing of carbon dioxide. Rapid reductions in methane and other short-lived climate pollutants could reduce the planetary warming expected by 2050 by half a degree Celsius. This would give the world urgently needed time to make the transition to the clean-energy economy of the future.”
Coal mines are the fourth biggest source of methane emissions in the U.S., accounting for 11% of all such emissions. Only oil and gas systems, agriculture, and landfills are bigger sources, the members of Congress said. According to the World Resources Institute, modest abatement requirements could reduce the methane emissions from coal mines by 24% at a cost of just $5 per ton, they said.
Methane, which is the cause of many underground coal mine explosions, is contained within coal seams and is routinely vented via air shafts to the surface out of deep mines. There have been some recent efforts to capture it, in this highly diluted form, for on-site power generation. Methane is also liberated during surface mining and would be much more difficult to control during that process.