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President Obama, EPA takes green gamble

  • (DREW SHENEMAN / Newark Star-Ledger)

With a metallic gasp, the chute opens its metal jaws and deposits precisely 230,000 pounds of coal into the railway car. The pour is carefully calibrated to create an aerodynamically efficient heap. Sealant is sprayed evenly across the coal's surface to limit dust release. Fully loaded, the car moves along to be replaced by another. It takes two-and-a-half hours to load the two-mile-long train.

Four trains, each carrying 15,000 tons of coal, leave the Spring Creek mine in Decker, Mont., every day, often destined for midwestern power plants, where the fuel is burned to light the homes and heat the kettles of Minnesotans and Michiganders.

Some goes elsewhere, including to a Canadian port, bound for China or South Korea.

Coal mining in the Powder River Basin, which straddles Montana and Wyoming, has been economical only since the Environmental Protection Agency began regulating sulfur dioxide in 1990. Coal from eastern states is far more sulfurous. A new rule from the EPA may be less well received here, however: On June 2 it unveiled a proposal to cut emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants, which account for 39 percent of overall emissions, by 30 percent from their 2005 level by 2030.

To reach that goal, each state — except Vermont, which has no fossil-fuel plants and therefore is exempt — has been handed its own target. These vary widely: Washington must cut the carbon intensity of its energy production by 72 percent, North Dakota by only 11 percent. Comments will be solicited before the rule is finalized next year. Lawsuits are inevitable.

A national carbon price would have been the cheapest way for America to meet its goals. That would require action from Congress, however, which has looked impossible since a Democratic-backed cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate in 2010. The EPA's approach, although it involves dictating terms to states, probably provides the next-best level of flexibility.

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