ico-electricity [ GWh of Electricity Added: ] 733K
ico-job [ Jobs Impact: ]
  • LOW
  • HIGH
ico-cost [ Budget Impact: ]
  • LOW
  • HIGH
ico-pollution [ Conventional Pollutants Reduced: ]

SO2 96,145 tons
NOx 68,027 tons
Hg 1.29 tons
PM 14,739 tons

ico-reduced [ Megatons of GHG Reduced: ] 367


The shale gas boom in the United States has spurred utilities to switch power generation from coal to less expensive and cleaner natural gas. As a result, coal generation has fallen 14% off its average between 2000-2009.1 While estimates vary, evidence suggests the U.S. has sufficient natural gas resources to meet its needs for decades to come.2 As a result, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) now estimates that coal generation capacity will fall from 318 GW to 278 GW by 2040.3 Nevertheless, substantial coal capacity could remain online, so federal policy should be designed to ensure a continued move towards natural gas and the benefits it provides.


A single GWh of natural gas generation emits roughly 55% less CO2 than a GWh of coal generation.4 Also, natural gas emits no mercury, whereas coal is the highest mercury emitting generation technology.5 In addition to the cost savings6 and public health benefits of switching away from coal, natural gas has created thousands of direct high-paying jobs and raised land values in many economically depressed regions of the country.7 It has even reduced carbon emissions enough that the U.S. is now compliant with the Kyoto Protocol targets.8

Despite its low cost and environmental benefits, market-led conversions to natural gas may be nearing their end.9 Though there is ample supply, analysts predict the price of natural gas will increase, reducing its economic advantage over coal.10 And demand may plateau, as the least efficient coal plants are all shuttered and the remaining coal fleet continues servicing customers.

Government action could change that. If new EPA power plant standards are put into place, 733,000 GWh could switch from coal to natural gas.11 This would eliminate approximately 367 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions every year.12 This is like removing about 23% of the coal plants in the U.S.13 It would further remove roughly 96,000 tons of SO2, 68,000 tons of NOx, 1.29 tons of mercury, and 14,000 tons of particulate matter.14


To sustain the trend of fuel switching, the federal government should implement measured policies that set standards and assist industry in its adjustment and compliance to the new rules.

Implement Balanced Emissions Standards for Existing Power Plants

As part of President Obama’s new initiative towards reducing U.S. greenhouse gases, EPA will expeditiously pursue a New Source Performance Standard (NSPS) for CO2 emissions from existing power plants.15 By enacting a balanced approach to rein in existing power plant emissions, EPA can ensure little disruption to economic growth and electricity supply thanks in large part to the natural gas generation that will take the place of coal. There are a number of options currently proposed by the NGO and business community.16 EPA should consider all approaches, but ultimately choose one that provides flexibility to utilities and defines emissions targets for states that are based on its existing generation mix to allow a gradual decrease in highest emitting plants. At the same time, steps should be taken to evaluate and consider the existing generation mix of utilities so as to not unduly penalize those who have already taken steps under state clean air regimes or due to a business interest.

Assist Utilities in New Standard Compliance

The federal government should form a public-private, multidisciplinary working group to develop a strategy to assist utilities transitioning from coal to alternatives. The Clean Air Act allows the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide from existing electric plants.17 But while cost may be considered, undue burden on industry may not prohibit regulation.18 Thus far, Congress has been unable to find a suitable compromise. Through this new working group, engagement with electric utilities adversely affected by EPA’s carbon-focused standards should help ease the transition from legacy coal plants to new generation. Methods to assist utilities could include revolving loans, loan guarantees, outright grants, or some other financing method to put the full faith and credit of the U.S. government behind the public interest in transitioning to cleaner energy.

Create a Job Retraining Program for Coal Workers

The federal government should facilitate the retraining of America’s coal plant workers and miners for new economic opportunities. As the electricity market moves towards natural gas, renewables, and other advanced generation technologies, the coal industry will inevitably shed jobs. The number of coal industry workers has already dropped from about 176,000 in 198319 to roughly 83,000 today.20 The Department of Labor’s National Emergency Grants21 have been used to aid displaced coal miners and has had success in retraining former coal workers,22 but the impact has been limited by the modest allocation made thus far. Building out a program similar in scope, but using a sustained, proactive approach and supported with consistent additional funding, would help reorient coal labor to the new market realities.