Efforts to save coal industry could end up destroying it

Senators’ opposition to pollution reduction is misguided

Two years ago, I discussed how “Like Detroit, the coal industry chooses (assisted) suicide.”  CAP’s Daniel J. Weiss updates the analysis in this cross-post.

Senators from coal states who are trying to protect big coal companies from the impact of global warming pollution reductions may only hasten the decline of big coal.

Their efforts include opposition to clean energy and global warming legislation and blocking EPA from setting pollution limits on the largest emitters. Meanwhile, coal’s share of electricity generation declines while the shares of natural gas and renewable energy generation increase. And more declines in coal use are forecast.

A recent independent government analysis found that coal senators’ plan to invest in so-called “clean coal technology” to reduce global warming pollution from power plants are unlikely to succeed without putting a price on this pollution, which is also essential to producing revenue to invest in this emerging technology. Moreover, the public strongly backs EPA efforts to set pollution reduction requirements.

The latest effort by some senators from coal states to block global warming pollution reductions from coal-fired power plants in order to “protect” U.S. coal companies occurred on September 15. They participated in a rally organized by big coal companies to oppose EPA reductions in global warming pollution. AP reports:

The industry-backed group Faces of Coal paid for most of the travel and lodging expenses for the coal miners, who came from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

At the rally these senators attacked EPA’s steps to reduce global warming pollution that were necessitated by the Senate’s failure to pass similar legislation. Yet most of these same senators opposed efforts by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) to pass the American Power Act that would have provided billions of dollars to develop and deploy carbon capture-and-storage technology or CCS that would enable power plants to burn coal with dramatically less carbon dioxide pollution. This would have provided a smooth transition toward a significantly lower carbon economy with little impact on coal consumption.

After blocking the American Power Act these senators now train their fire on EPA’s compliance with the Clean Air Act that requires it to set global warming pollution reductions as mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court. EPA plans to focus on the largest sources first””those that emit more than 75,000 tons of carbon pollution annually. Nonetheless, big polluters falsely claim that EPA pollution reductions would affect “farms to even American homes.” Shamelessly, after blocking congressional action these senators now argue that only Congress””and not EPA””should set such pollution limits.

For instance, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), who repeatedly opposed reductions in global warming pollution, wants to block EPA reductions so Congress can act.

I do think that it makes sense to have some time here to have Congress make the ultimate decision rather than EPA.

But even without global warming pollution reductions the U. S. Energy Information Administration found that coal’s share of electricity generation has slipped while natural gas and renewable electricity are on the rise over the last three years.

Electricity generation by fuel by year to date

Coal’s future could be even bleaker. A recent analysis by the The Wall Street Journal found that:

Power companies are increasingly switching to natural gas to fuel their electricity plants, driven by low prices and forecasts of vast supplies for years to come.

While the trend started in the late 1990s, the momentum is accelerating and comes at the expense of coal. Some utilities are closing coal-fired plants; others are converting them to run on gas.

The switch is occurring globally and is getting a push from regulators who want to limit emissions that contribute to climate change, haze and health problems such as respiratory illness. Though efforts in Congress to pass legislation attaching a price to carbon emissions appear stalled for now, utilities still anticipate eventual carbon restrictions. The Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, recently announced a 20-year development plan that emphasizes nuclear and gas, and includes fewer coal units.

Coal-burning facilities are expected to slip to 10% of total new capacity in the U.S. in 2013, down from 18% in 2009, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports. Gas, meanwhile, is expected to soar to 82% of new capacity in 2013 from 42% last year.

Big coal companies should be most concerned with the projection that there will be a nearly 10 percent decline “in coal-fired generation, 2015 versus 2009.” Much of this decline will be due to the retirement of old, inefficient coal-fired power plants that will be too expensive to adapt to new public health standards for sulfur and mercury air pollution. It is also due to uncertainty about future global warming reductions””investors are reluctant to bet on new coal plants until it is clear whether and how many reductions in global warming pollution are required. Delaying EPA health standards on global warming pollution would only prolong uncertainty and further delay investments in new coal plants.

Some senators from coal states want the federal government to invest billions of dollars into CCS research rather than require reductions in global warming pollution because they view this nascent technology as a silver bullet that can reduce pollution while allowing coal combustion.

For instance, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and George Voinovich (R-OH) introduced the Carbon Capture and Storage Deployment Act, S. 3591. It would provide $850 million in federal research money for CCS as well as raise $2 billion annually from a “wire charge” (a levy or tax) on all fossil-fuel-generated electricity.

There are two fundamental problems with this approach. First, there would be no market for CCS technology unless there are global warming pollution reductions in place. The Government Accountability Office concluded that a mandatory reduction in carbon pollution was essential for CCS to blossom.

Without a tax or a sufficiently restrictive limit on CO2 emissions, plant operators lack an economic incentive to use CCS technologies. Reports by IPCC, NAS, and the Global CCS Institute have all highlighted the importance of a carbon policy to incentivize the use of CCS.

Second, without a pollution reduction program to generate revenue to invest in CCS research and development, some of the money for it will have to come from general revenues. The large federal budget deficit, however, has fueled opposition to more government spending. APA and the American Clean Energy and Security Act, H.R. 2454, would have provided billions of dollars for CCS research using revenue raised from selling pollution dumping permits under global warming pollution reduction legislation. It is difficult to imagine Congress appropriating money for CCS when so many existing programs will be facing severe budget cuts.

The senators’ strategy of attempting to stave off pollution reductions from coal-fired power plants also flies in the face of overwhelming support for such health protections. A just-conducted poll conducted by Infogroup/Opinion Research Corporation for the Natural Resource Defense Council found strong bipartisan support for EPA to limit global warming pollution from power plants.

About three out of four Americans (73 percent) support “protecting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority” to “take steps that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric utilities and other major industrial polluters.” Support is fairly evenly divided between “strongly” (38 percent) and “somewhat” (34 percent).

By contrast, only about one in four Americans (24 percent) oppose the EPA’s authority to control carbon dioxide pollution, with just 15 percent in the “strongly oppose” category.

Little variation is seen among regions in the level of support for the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions: Northeast (75 percent); Midwest (68 percent); South (72 percent); and West (75 percent). A majority of Republicans (54 percent), Independents (78 percent) and Democrats (91 percent) favor protecting the EPA’s authority.

The poll further found that if Congress’s efforts to stop EPA from setting pollution limits succeed people would feel that Congress would be letting special interests off the hook.

Seven out of 10 Americans (71 percent) agree with the following statement: “If Congress blocks the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electric utilities and other major industrial polluters, it would send the wrong message to polluters, namely, that Congress isn’t willing to hold polluters accountable.”

A majority of Republicans (55 percent), Independents (70 percent), and Democrats (89 percent) agree with this statement.

Sen. Rockefeller said at the rally funded by big-coal, “I don’t want somebody who is not elected, whose agency is divided by all kinds of stovepipes, telling us what we ought to do.” But the poll found that Americans believe that “scientists and other experts at the EPA are ‘the most qualified to make decisions about how best to safeguard the American public when dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and other major pollutants,’ compared to fewer than one in 10 Americans (9 percent) who said Congress should make such decisions.” Sen. Rockefeller may want Congress to make these decisions, but Americans clearly prefer technical experts to do so.

Among senators from coal states there was no greater defender of the industry than the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV). He, however, implored West Virginians to embrace a clean energy future rather than resist it””much like his prescient 2002 warnings about the looming disaster of an Iraq invasion. In one of his last Senate speeches given in opposition to another effort to block EPA from reducing carbon pollution he called for investments in CCS technology as part of global warming pollution reductions.

The regulation of greenhouse gasses is approaching, whether done by Congress or by regulation, despite naysayers who rail about the nonexistence of climate change.

This resolution, I fear, would have a sweeping impact. It could preclude action to reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil. It could delay critical investments in clean coal technologies. That’s not a national energy strategy I can or want to support. My vote today against the Murkowski Resolution is a vote for coal’s future and my intention to continue to have a seat at the table and a voice for West Virginia in how we legislate our energy future.

Sen. Byrd understood that blocking action on pollution reductions could postpone expenditures that could save coal by investing in CCS and other measures that allow coal combustion with much less pollution as part of comprehensive reduction plan.

At a September 8 speech in West Virginia Sen. Rockefeller rebuked those who deny the existence of global warming. He also acknowledged that the uncertainty Sen. Byrd warned about could delay investments in new coal powered plants, saying, “Wall Street””including a number of our biggest customers for West Virginia coal””are withholding job-generating new investments due to uncertainty in the law.” Yet his efforts to block EPA pollution reductions only prolongs and exacerbates this uncertainty.

The coal senators’ efforts to protect coal companies ignore Byrd’s warning. Preventing reductions in global warming pollution by Congress or EPA would prolong uncertainty for investors, ignore public opinion, and deprive a market and revenue essential to develop and deploy the technology necessary to ensure coal’s long-term future. By trying to save coal from pollution reductions these senators could end up destroying it.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at American Progress, where he leads the Center’s clean energy and climate advocacy campaign. This is cross-posted at CAP.

18 Responses to Efforts to save coal industry could end up destroying it

  1. Colorado Bob says:

    Coral Disease Outbreaks Linked To Winter Temperatures, Not Just Warm Summers
    New Coral Disease Outbreak Risk Product Available

  2. Ben Lieberman says:

    What can we do to hasten this transition from coal?
    It’s time to start telling people who rely on dirty energy where the power comes from, so that they understand what’s happening when they turn on a light.

  3. Michael Tucker says:

    Those coal state senators should get the Wile E Coyote Super Genius Award for their closed minded short-term thinking. Saying no to ALL attempts to make coal cleaner could hurt coal sales in the future. However, the graph does not paint a compelling picture that the coal industry is on its way to destruction. If power plant conversions to natural gas continue, and domestic coal sales slump, they will likely seek relief in foreign markets.

  4. mike roddy says:

    The fact that 10% of new power plants are designed to burn coal is troubling. If we’re going to accept the science, there should be no new coal plants in the United States at all, and accelerated retirement of existing ones. Time is too short, and the danger too great, to settle for incremental steps.

  5. catman306 says:

    Mike Roddy, I wish someone could look into whether the people who are making the decision to use coal rather than natural gas are getting kick-backs from the coal industry. Here in Georgia, groups are fighting a new coal electric plant in Washington county. Turns out the company building the plant is owned by Cobb EMC. The membership of this coop has been trying unsuccessfully for more than two years to remove the board members. I figure there must be some connection between that board and a coal company somewhere. Otherwise they’d just build a new gas fired generator to which few would object.

  6. Bill W says:

    The coal industry is dead, they just don’t know it yet. What these senators do understand, but aren’t saying, is that CCS is just a smokescreen with no chance of sequestering carbon on the scale necessary to make coal “clean”.

  7. fj2 says:

    gpi “Energy Innovation in the U.S. Military” is sold out next week but you can watch the webcast as part of #climateweeknyc

  8. fj2 says:
    Climate Week New York City September 20-26, 2010

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Maybe the Sierra Club say no to dirty coal campaign is helping.

  10. It’s a very merry unbirthday party… with the Mad Hatter and his guests so very confused.
    To move to a sustainable economy is going to be very disruptive and painful, no way around it.

  11. Bob Wallace says:

    “As part of an effort to phase out all coal plants in the Canadian province of Ontario by 2014, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) is working with power-plant owners to close facilities down or transition them to burn biomass.

    One such facility, the 211-MW Atikokan Generating Station, will be the first to move entirely to biomass.”

  12. Steve O says:

    So EIA says 82% gas and 10% coal in 2013 (for new generation). That’s 92% fossil (plus any oil plants). So a max of 8% non-fossil. Not good.

  13. Tom Bennion says:


    THE world’s biggest mining company has urged Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to act on climate change ahead of other countries, warning that Australia’s economy will suffer unless it looks to a future beyond coal.

    In a dramatic intervention into the stalled climate debate, BHP Billiton chief executive Marius Kloppers yesterday called for ”a clear price signal” on carbon dioxide emissions, possibly including both a carbon tax and a limited carbon trading scheme covering power plants.

  14. Edward says:

    Thursday, 16 Sept 2010 at a public hearing in Chicago I told the EPA that coal cinders and ash are radioactive waste and therefore coal ash has no beneficial use. The problems are a 1984 [!] EPA ruling that there is no significant hazard and the fact that jurisdiction is split between EPA, NRC and RCRA.

    We will have to sue those agencies to get the 1984 ruling reversed. I can’t remember who the good environmental plaintiffs/lawyers are. Do you remember them?

  15. Edward says:

    Coal contains: URANIUM, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY, Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine, Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium, Magnesium, Thorium, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine, Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc.

    See Also:
    by Alex Gabbard
    Metals and Ceramics Division
    Oak Ridge National Laboratory
    Oak Ridge, TN

  16. John says:

    The EPA bureaucrats could regulate CO2 based on scientific/religious evidence OR we could have our Congressmen and Senators write legislation based on whom contributes the most money. Such a quandary.

  17. Chris Winter says:

    Governor Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat, is running for the Senate seat formerly held by the late Robert Byrd.

    Recently, several hundred Appalachian coal miners rallied in Washington, DC. Joe Manchin was there to urge Congressional support of the coal industry. He links to this related article on his campaign Web site.

    Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb also attended, as did Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY). Most of the travel and lodging expenses for the miners were paid by Faces of Coal. The story can be found on Ken Ward’s Coal Tattoo blog.

  18. Chris Winter says:

    The state governor’s Web site also mentions this Washington pro-coal rally, right below its report of Manchin’s visit to Wood County, recently ravaged by tornadoes.

    In other news, a center that coordinates substance-abuse prevention work in West Virginia will lose half its funding — the state half — in October. It will have to lay off about one-third of its staff. The Charleston Gazette has the story:

    In October 2009, the Gazette reported that substance abuse cost West Virginia’s health care system $116 million in 2007.