Former EPA Official: 'Don't Go Home on Coal'

The State Journal
19 September 2012
By Taylor Kuykendall, Reporter

A former Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator visiting West Virginia last week said don't believe coal is going to be erased from the nation's future soon.

Winston Porter, who lives in Savannah, Ga., also used to manage the environmental department of the Bechtel Corp. He said he gears his talks toward looking at "what is the situation in America?'"

"There is no question that coal is dropping pretty rapidly," Porter said at a meeting of the Society of American Military Engineers in Huntington. "So, it used to be coal provided half of the electricity. That's dropped down a good bit. Coal has two major issues: Natural gas is cleaner than coal, and prices have dropped sharply."

Porter said the notion of shutting down coal as a resource is overly simplistic and does not reflect the realities of the U.S. energy market.

"People shouldn't just go home on coal," Porter said. "There's a lot of coal in these states. I think, one, you have to fight hard on these regulations. You can build a pretty clean coal plant if you're starting from scratch."

A part of the problem for coal, Porter said, is that the current administration has played a hand in its decline. A new administration, he said, could change the market environment for coal.

"Don't give up totally on coal," Porter said. "You never know what's going to happen. I'm very much against this picking winners and losers this administration is trying to do. ... The  election will be important to what happens to coal."

What the EPA should be doing, Porter said, is looking for the "knee in the curve," the point at which regulations both significantly reduce harm but also do not exert unreasonable costs.

"Regulations are not an exact science. You do the best you can, you take a lot of data and it's controversial," Porter said, adding later it is better to seek acceptable emissions versus zero-tolerance measures. "There is some point at which you have to ask is that next increment really worth it?"

Lisa Jackson, the current chief of the EPA, used to work under Porter. He said he was somewhat critical of her administration, which he said he feels his heavily pressured from political parties from both sides.

"You have to pushback against the politicians from both sides," he said.

So, what makes a good environmental regulator?

"You need people that are for the environment, but are not just ideologues," Porter said. " ... They have to be willing to put their necks out there and fight against some of the most stringent environmentalists too."

Porter, a self-described "free market guy," said he believes the current administration is not allowing the market to work.

"I think they are trying to pick winners and losers a little too much on solar and things like that," he said. "I just think they need to let the market work it. ... This stuff costs money. It costs jobs."

Porter said banking on renewables makes sense in some applications, but does not yet make sense at large scales.

"The basic point is, and I'm not against any of this stuff, it all has its own little niche, but it's not going to take over from the big four traditional fuels," he said. " ... Let's keep working on them. They have some relevancy, particularly as a niche player."

Porter also discussed various other energy topics, ranging from nuclear power in the U.S. to global energy supply and demand.