In its waning days, the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  has essentially halted all new construction of coal-fired power plants until the government can figure out what to do about climate-change-causing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. In a ruling yesterday (pdf) on a petition to build a new 110-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Bonanza, Utah, the EPA decided that it could no longer grant permits for such new construction until it determines what is needed to limit CO2 emissions.

The decision refers back to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court  ruling that found that the EPA, much to its own chagrin, has the authority to regulate emissions of CO2, the most ubiquitous greenhouse gas. In essence, permits cannot be granted until the agency figures out whether or not to force power plants to install technology to control such emissions.

The CO2 problem is not limited to coal plants. All fossil-fuel fired power plants emit CO2 in varying proportions. And, if you scratch most renewable energy sources—wind turbines, solar photovoltaics, even nuclear—there are copious greenhouse gas emissions somewhere along the line—forging of steel for turbine blades, purifying silicon and concentrating uranium.

Further, there is no control technology for CO2 available at present. Carbon capture—whether before the fossil fuel is burned or after—is still only being demonstrated, although the storage portion has been used effectively to get more oil and natural gas out of the ground.

So, for the time being, at least 30 new coal-fired power plants just received a big stop-work order and, with a new administration pledging to regulate CO2, it remains unclear when the climate might change in coal's favor again.

Credit: © Michael Utech/