Dieterich-Ward on Revesz and Lienke, 'Struggling for Air: Power Plants and the "War on Coal"'

Richard L. Revesz, Jack Lienke
Allen J. Dieterich-Ward

Richard L. Revesz, Jack Lienke. Struggling for Air: Power Plants and the "War on Coal". New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 232 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-023311-2.

Reviewed by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward (Shippensburg University)
Published on H-Environment (February, 2017)
Commissioned by David T. Benac

When I was a kid helping my dad feed our cattle, there was a certain hilltop where, on a clear winter’s day, we could count three and sometimes even four plumes from the smokestacks of enormous power plants lining the Ohio River about twenty miles away. The reason these plants, and several others like them just out of my view, were bunched in a relatively rural area lay a few hundred feet under my boots in thick veins of coal as well as in the high-voltage power lines snaking through our farm that carried electricity produced from that coal to urban residents as far away as Indiana. More ominously, those white plumes rising from the stacks carried with them sulfur dioxide, mercury, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide that had been locked away safely underground for millions of years, but were now free to cause a host of problems from asthma to acid rain to global climate change. Even by the 1980s when I first saw them, the oldest of these coal-fired behemoths had been operational for nearly thirty years, traditionally considered the effective lifespan for such a structure. However, each would go on to have several decades' more use, with some of the units still active today, due in part to the unintended consequences of the Clean Air Act (CAA), a law first passed in 1970 to clean up the very types of pollution produced by these plants.

The reasons for the longevity of these plants in southeastern Ohio and hundreds like them throughout the United States is the story told in Struggling for Air: Power Plants and the “War on Coal,” which provides a concise and engaging overview of the relationship between coal-fired power production and environmental politics since the passage of the CAA. The authors, lawyers Richard Revesz and Jack Lienke of NYU’s Institute for Policy Integrity, largely focus their analysis on the arena of federal courts, congressional politics, and decision making by executive agencies and large utilities. They argue that the inclusion of a “grandfather” clause in the CAA that partially exempted existing power plants from the environmental standards imposed on new facilities resulted in stifling technological innovation and “favoring old, obsolete, and very dirty generators" as utilities chose to keep older plants going rather than invest in new, cleaner facilities (p. 4). Far from finding evidence for a partisan “war on coal” that opponents accused the Obama administration of waging against the coal industry, Rvesz and Lienke point to the efforts of presidents from both parties since George H. W. Bush to solve this fundamental flaw in one of the nation’s preeminent environmental laws. Struggling for Air thus serves both as an engaging corrective accessible to a general audience and the best scholarly work in more than twenty years to focus exclusively on the important historical intersection between coal production and the politics of air pollution since 1970.

The book’s first section offers a primer on the use of coal in power production followed by an overview of the anti-environmental rhetoric that emerged early in the presidency of Barack Obama. In their succinct overview of coal, the authors emphasize the regional differences in both the reliance on coal for electricity (generally Midwestern and Appalachian states use far more coal that coastal states) and the types and methods of coal mined (low-sulfur coal surface mined in Wyoming; high-sulfur coal often deep mined in Illinois and Appalachia). They also detail the major pollutants found in coal--sulfur dioxide (S02), nitrogen oxides (NOx), mercury, and carbon dioxide (C02)--that account for a variety of health problems as well as acid rain and global climate change. Chapter 2, “War Stories,” explains the development of a political narrative of a “war on coal” that emerged in early 2009 and subsequently played into populist, antiregulatory critiques of President Obama as an out-of-touch elitist with “a personal vendetta against the coal industry and those who depend on it for employment or affordable electricity” (p. 22). But, the authors argue, in making their case opponents “rely on an artificially compressed time frame” that ignores the longer history of unsuccessful attempts to hold polluters accountable in the way intended when the CAA was passed in 1970 (p. 21).

The next section turns to that history, beginning in a very different political climate from the present as Senator Edmund Muskie and his political nemesis, President Richard Nixon, vied for the mantle of the most environmentally friendly politician during the late 1960s, when public concern over air pollution rose dramatically. Over the course of three chapters, the authors provide an overview of the legal and political context in which the CAA was enacted (along with the “error” of the grandfather clause), the development of a political strategy by utilities during the 1970s and 1980s to extend the life of less efficient, higher polluting power plants, and finally the attempted regulatory fixes designed to decrease problems such as acid rain by phasing out the oldest and dirtiest facilities. A central idea throughout this story was the battle over defining routine maintenance versus “modification” of grandfathered facilities, a distinction that was supposed to trigger the more stringent standards applied to new structures. Under pressure from business groups and friendly presidential administrations, however, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials set the threshold for what constituted modification of plants so liberally that they “served to extend rather than curtail the benefits of grandfathering” (p. 6). Further, “when lobbying and litigation failed to yield sufficiently favorable regulations,” the authors demonstrated, “many grandfathered coal plants simply flouted the rules that didn’t suit them” (p. 59).

The final two chapters deal with the efforts of the Obama administration to finally address continuing pollution problems from coal-fired power plants. After introducing the threat of global climate change, and the Bush administration’s bid to ignore a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gasses fit within the CAA’s definition of an “air pollutant,” the authors explain the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to craft a cap-and-trade policy to control carbon dioxide. In the last chapter, they focus on the market and regulatory context that by 2016 finally seemed poised to shutter the oldest, most polluting coal-fired plants, whose lifespans had been artificially extended by decades to take advantage of loopholes in the CAA. On the one hand, the shift to low-cost natural gas has played a pivotal role in the recent closure of dozens of coal-fired power plants and the shelving of most plans for new plants. Further, as they point out, the key policy interventions associated by opponents with the so-called war on coal are “exposed as neither new nor the brainchild of President Obama” (p. 3). However, writing as they were before the election of Donald Trump, the authors’ concern that the most important of these policies “remains vulnerable to both legal political attacks” has proven well founded, with the possibility that policy reversals in the coming years may mean that “a significant number of grandfathered plants may live to pollute another day—or decade” (p. 157).     

Struggling for Air is thoughtful, well argued, and relatively balanced, though certainly with a point of view hostile to the continued use of aging coal-fired power plants. At times the authors overreach in emphasizing the bipartisan support for air pollution regulation and downplay the relatively consistent efforts of Republican administrations to weaken the CAA in support of the fossil fuel industry. That said, the great strength of the book is in its concise overview of the backstory of the “war on coal” narrative that explains the key issues at stake while avoiding overly technical or legalistic prose even when dealing with complicated court decisions, agency rule making, and evolving legislation. Despite it’s long-time status as the leading source for electrical production, there has been a relative dearth of scholarly work on coal among both energy and environmental historians, with even less written that explores the relationship between coal and the politics of air pollution.  As a result, this work fills an important gap even as it suggests the need for a more robust treatment of a number of key issues.  

Due in equal parts to its brevity and the interests of the authors, this is a book written at the scale of federal policymaking and implementation, with issues at the state and local levels left largely out. Since states were supposed to take the lead in crafting pollution controls under the CAA, the differences between states in how regulations were developed and implemented is a key factor in understanding how some of the worst-offending facilities were able to continue operating. The extent to which criticisms of the CAA and the EPA were wrapped up in broader criticisms of regulation and government control remains similarly unaddressed, with the consequence that the appearance of “war on coal” rhetoric in 2009 detailed by the authors is divorced from the longer evolution of anti-environmentalism as a political narrative in previous decades. The important insights provided by Struggling for Air should thus serve as a strong foundation for future research in this area.


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Citation: Allen J. Dieterich-Ward. Review of Revesz, Richard L.; Lienke, Jack, Struggling for Air: Power Plants and the "War on Coal". H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2017.

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