The Muskingum River coal-fired power plant in Ohio is nearing the end of its life. AEP, one of the country's biggest coal-based utilities, says it will cut 159 jobs when it shuts the decades-old plant in three years. (http://washpost.bloomberg.com/marketnews/stockdetail/?symbol=AEP) Sooner than it would like, because of new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency.
About an hour's drive north, the life of another power plant is just beginning. In Dresden, Ohio, AEP has hired hundreds to build a natural-gas-fueled plant that will employ 25 people when it starts running early next year. This new plant will emit far fewer pollutants.
These two plants tell the rest of the story of what is really happening as the new EPA regulations ripple through the real economy. Some jobs are lost Others are created. the overall impact on employment is minimal. Statistics from the Buereau of Labor (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/mslo.t02.htm ) show that very few layoffs are principally caused by tougher rules.
If you are a coal miner in West Virginia, it is not a great comfort that new employees in Texas are employed doing natural gas. The country's unemployment crisis has some politician portraying regulations as the economy's primary villain.
Aging coal-fired power plants cannot compete with plants burning the cheap, new found abundant natural gas from American shale formations. Younger coal plants can compete because of increased efficiency and less expensive equipment is available to upgrade these plants. For the many older coal plants there must be installed enormous devices called scrubbers that remove sulfur dioxide from the exhaust emitted by the smokestacks.
These coal-powered plants will have to hire plumbers, electricians, painters to retrofit a plant therefor jobs are created. Another AEP coal plant nearby in Conesville required more than 1,000 temporary workers to build a scrubber for one of its units. The plant then added 40 full-time employees to monitor the scrubber, which doubled the footprint of the unit. The device requires so much machinery it has its own control room. A New Jersey Power Plant said installing scrubbers at two of their company coal plants created 1,600 jobs for two years, plus 24 permanent ones.
The EPA agency is now tightening limits on sulfur dioxide emissions under the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (http://www.epa.gov/airtransport/). There are currently 594 coal-fired power plants in the United States. Coal power does collectively contribute almost half of our electricity demands and are the single biggest air polluter in the U.S. Some Power Plants are more than 50 years old and these companies are saying they cannot add the required equipment in time to meet the EPA's deadlines. These Plants has had plenty of time to comply with the rules.
Some of the coal plants are approaching the end of their life spans anyway. In addition, the price of natural gas has plummeted as people have discovered how to unlock gas from shale rock. The automations of the newer plants will require fewer workers keeping the price down to provide electric. The coal-to-gas switches are already being made for economic reasons and the shift to natural gas and renewables will generate a net 500,000 jobs in the United States.
Economists who have studied the matter say that there is little evidence that regulations cause massive job loss in the economy, and that rolling them back would not lead to a boom in job creation. Firms sometimes hire workers to help them comply with new rules. In some cases, more heavily regulated businesses such as coal shrink, giving an opportunity for cleaner industries such as natural gas to grow.