By Catherine Boudreau
May 16, 2023 - Coal, like the fossilized plants and animals it's made of, could one day become a relic of America's past.
Most of the country's more than 3,400 fossil-fuel power plants would have to nearly eliminate their planet-warming greenhouse-gas emissions by 2040 under a proposal announced by the Environmental Protection Agency last week.
The plan is the latest move by the Biden administration to curb emissions that are fueling the climate crisis. The transportation and electricity sectors are the two largest sources of emissions, with the former accounting for 28% and the latter 25%, according to the EPA. The White House is already pushing for a move to electric vehicles to reduce emissions from tailpipes.
Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy is key to cutting emissions in half this decade and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels. Climate scientists warn that crossing that temperature threshold would have catastrophic effects such as heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failures, and food insecurity. The world, on average, is already at least 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer.
The EPA estimated that its power-plant proposal would avoid up to 617 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions through 2042 — about the annual emissions of half the cars on the road in the US today. The plan would also put the Biden administration closer to its climate goals.
Coal and natural gas supply the majority of US electricity, although emissions from the power sector have been declining over the past decade as more natural gas and renewables such as solar and wind have been added to the grid and as coal plants close. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first two decades it's in the atmosphere.
Coal plants could also opt to shut down in the first half of the 2030s to avoid meeting most or even all pollution caps. Further closures would continue the trend that's already playing out in the coal sector.
Here are the 15 states where coal accounts for the largest source of power as of 2021, according to the US Energy Information Administration:
West Virginia — 91%
Missouri — 75%
Wyoming — 74%
Kentucky — 71%
Utah — 62%
Indiana — 58%
North Dakota — 57%
Nebraska — 50%
Montana — 44%
Wisconsin — 43%
Colorado — 42%
New Mexico — 36%
Arkansas — 35%
Michigan — 32%
Minnesota — 27%