Reflections on the Environmental Legacy of George H.W. Bush
By Betsy Monseu, American Coal Council
With former President George H.W. Bush’s passing late last year came images and reflections on his life and leadership. Photos, videos and postings show his extraordinary level of personal outreach. That was key to the success and political accomplishments of “Bush 41”. As Union Pacific Railroad carried him to his final resting place
in Texas, Americans watched and a patriotic wave swept the country. Union Pacific has generously made their ma-terials available at www.up.com/bush41 and I highly recommend a visit.
President Bush’s political legacy included stewarding environmental improvements while supporting market-based solutions and holding the line on costs. His background in the oil busi-ness and serving in Congress and as vice president gave him a perspective that was both practical and politically savvy.
He campaigned on a platform that included emphasis on the economy and addressing environmental challenges, including acid rain. Once elected, Presi-dent Bush lost no time putting together a plan for changes to the Clean Air Act, which had not been amended since 1977. Lowering sulfur dioxide emissions to reduce acid rain was a key objec-tive of the package, and it had major implications for coal mining states and the power sector’s coal use.
With large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, bipartisan consensus was critical to legislative success. The President was concerned about the cost of compliance, and out of that concern came the concept of a national “cap and trade” program intended to provide market-based and flexible compliance options to minimize costs. A final bill was hammered out and the Clean Air Act Amendments legislation was signed in 1990, with compliance dead-lines of 1995 for Phase I and 2000 for Phase II.
Phase I called for significant sulfur dioxide or SO2 emissions reduc-tions from coal electric generat-ing units (EGUs) located primarily east of the Missis-sippi River. Phase II capped emissions nationally, thus impacting the entire coal fleet.
Generators could comply by installing control technology – scrub-bers – to remove SO2, or changing the coal or mix of coals. A market was established for buying and selling emissions allowances.
Scrub versus switch decisions were made by utilities, with big impacts for coal mining regions along with other market conditions and forces already in play like the development of the Pow-der River Basin.
I was working in the fuels group of a Midwestern utility in the mid- to late-1980s as we began considering sulfur dioxide emissions reductions. Our plants had burned a steady diet of Illinois Basin coal. We started to search for low sulfur compliance coal, a search that initially took me to eastern Kentucky. I haven’t forgotten the landing at the airport in Pikeville. The flat Midwest has no mountains for airplanes to contend with! As this was my first experience to see a mine outside of the Illinois Basin, the tour vividly showed how different underground mining conditions can be. It was a low-ceiling operation, and lying nearly flat to get out to the face was like something out of Star Wars!
During that late 1980s period, my personal life also took a different turn. I had met “the one” and he lived in Colorado. When we tied the knot, I left the utility and moved to Colorado. It was fortuitous that the year was 1990, and interest in the Clean Air Act Amendments was high. I had some contacts from the utility search for low sulfur coal, which had expanded from the East to also consider Colorado coal.
I was fortunate to land a job in coal market development with the Class I railroad originating the coals in Colorado and Utah. My role was to work with utilities to facilitate using these coals as part of their SO2 emissions compliance plans. I was excited about the prospect of engaging with mines and potential customers, and the opportunity to work in another part of the supply chain. I soon found out how much I had to learn about the actual railroad operations part of the equation. I had been involved with transportation while at the utility, but this was another level entirely. I recall being on a phone call with an operations manager and having almost no idea what he was talking about, such was the railroad lingo. I took copious notes, hung up and literally ran down the hall to the office of a colleague for translation. No doubt this gave my colleagues a good laugh! After that auspicious start, things moved quickly and we did some innova-tive things over the course of five years in developing new business.
Then I had a chance to move to another leg of the supply chain, to a diversified coal mining company with operations in nearly every U.S. coal basin. Again, new experiences began immediately as I went to Gillette, Wyoming to meet our operations and transportation management. That began a long association with Powder River Basin (PRB) coal. Clean Air Act Amend-ments or not, the PRB was a market force to be reckoned with. To see a PRB mine is to understand that.
Back in the Midwest, the Clean Air Act Amendments were taking their toll on the production of high sulfur coals. Volumes dropped precipitously for many, many years. And while the Clean Air Act has not been changed by any major new legislation subsequent to 1990, the power sector has been faced with a multitude of additional environ-mental regulations for air, water and waste from EGUs. This has meant more changes and a great deal of complexity in how EGUs are operated, the environ-mental controls they use and the coals they consume.
The Bush administration’s 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments have been characterized as a success story. As ACC’s former communications director Jason Hayes used to say, “When was the last time you heard anybody men-tion acid rain?” Problem solved. But there was significant dislocation and difficulty for families in some mining communities from the changes brought about by this legislation.
For the last six years at the Ameri-can Coal Council, my job means that I have the opportunity to engage on behalf of all U.S. coal. Our industry must continue to work together to support environmental policy actions that are reasonable and pragmatic. President George H.W. Bush found a way to work in bipartisan fashion – and beyond that, he sought advice and counsel from a variety of stakeholders, including industry and environmental groups. Perhaps that’s the real lesson and legacy.