The Rage Of A Dying Dinosaur: Coal’s Decline In The U.S.

by RL Miller, via Daily Kos

A dinosaur backed into a corner by a pack of smaller dinosaurs may be mortally wounded, but it’s big and angry enough to do some serious damage in its death throes. The coal industry, long accustomed to being the Tyrannosaurus Rex of American politics, is on the ropes, battered by forces outside its control, but angry enough to damage people while it searches for an escape route.

Long term use of coal in the US is declining: “The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is forecast to fall below 40% for the year, its lowest level since World War II. Four years ago, it was 50%. By the end of this decade, it is likely to be near 30%.”

Coal’s decline is widely attributed to three reasons, which I’ve cleverly named EPA — Environmental Protection Agency, Price, Activists. One is far less important than the other two.

Congressional Republicans blame the EPA, but every time I’ve looked at “EPA regulations force this coal plant shutdown” cries, I’ve found a decrepit old plant shut down most months because maintenance costs are too high. EPA regulations are a relatively minor factor in coal plant shutdowns.

Most business analysts attribute coal’s fall to price. Coal’s price in the United States has stayed fairly stable, but prices of alternatives have plummeted. Natgas is at $2.50/MBTU – it was $9-10 during Bush years. Utilities are actively planning to replace older coal fired plants to natural gas. Things are so bad for Old King Coal that it’s fighting with two of its usual strong allies.

The electric utilities, formerly joined at the hip with coal, are now bailing on coal:

many now recognize that expending the political capital to fight for plants built in the middle of last century is not worth it — especially when they can construct combined cycle natural gas facilities with relative regulatory ease while releasing roughly half of the emissions in the meantime.

A perfect storm is pulling the coal sector under:

For example, “American Electric Power, meanwhile, has been one of the most vocal critics of EPA regs. But at the same time, it has admitted — according to Tierney’s paper — that its coal plants are running much less than intended because it is cheaper to operate the natural gas facilities.”

While coal is flatlining or declining everywhere else, it's exploding in China

Today, Arch Coal announces layoffs of 750 employees, blaming “current market pressures and a challenging regulatory environment.”

To top off matters, electric utilities and the coal barons are picking a fight with the railroads, normally the third member of their power-hungry pack, demanding that anti-trust exemptions be removed from railroads.

This will not end well for the tyrannosaurus, one hopes.

The business analysts don’t like to acknowledge the third reason why coal in the United States is decreasing: the activists. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal program takes credit for shutting down 169 coal plants in the United States since Dick Cheney announced a need to build 200 more plants.

It’s important to not let up the pressure to shut down coal plants wherever they may be proposed. Coal’s market-force-led decline may change if the market for natural gas picks up and renewables haven’t yet reached grid parity. The tyrannosaurus may be down, but it’s already planning its next move – a bolt overseas, one that is being aided by Obama’s massive expansion of the Powder River Basin and the six Pacific Northwest terminals on the drawing boards.

Act locally to fight coal. Some examples:

* in Asheville, North Carolina, tell Progress Energy to move beyond coal

* in Austin, Texas, attend a volunteer orientation June 30

* if you care about clean air in the national parks, tell the EPA you want strong haze protection.

And while fighting coal, remember the alternative: the sun and wind, both of which have been around longer than the dinosaurs.

RL Miller is an attorney and environment blogger with Climate Hawks. This piece was originally published at Daily Kos and was reprinted with permission by the author.


12 Responses to The Rage Of A Dying Dinosaur: Coal’s Decline In The U.S.

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    To RL Miller:

    Don’t believe the rumor that gas is half of coal’s CO2 emissions:

    We’re in favor of shutting down coal plants, and I would like to see a carbon tax making coal worthless both here and overseas. But natural gas is, in the end, just another fossil fuel. It would lead to us falling off a 50 foot cliff instead of a 75 foot one. The result is the same.

  2. A.J. says:

    I don’t know how well emissions from gas operations can be controlled, but at this point it doesn’t look like there’s much to slow the expansion. Whether it will be as a baseload source or a supplement to renewables will probably vary by region, but my local utility is already in the process of deciding whether to trim support for renewables. They’re under budget pressures and paying more for wholesale power, and they say that around here alternatives cost 2-3 times more. So without a price on carbon and with questions about the future subsidy of renewables, I suspect the choice will often be natural gas, as long as it’s anywhere near as cheap as it is now. Conservation efforts are more important than ever, because we don’t seem to be going ultra-low carbon anytime soon, and the economy needs to be prepared to handle higher rates.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    A.J, humanity needs to go zero carbon emissions as fast as humanly possible or we are going to destroy ourselves, completely. That the ruling capitalist system and dominant ruling caste of florid psychopaths, put money, power and profits before the lives of billions, is all the proof you need of the diabolical evil, the greatest evil imaginable, of these creatures. Yet they strut and fret and pose as ‘moral’ authorities, all to the tune of the sycophantic drongoes of the morally corrupt MSM.

  4. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Price is the bigger factor, we need a carbon tax now.

  5. Cugel says:

    King Coal has surely given up on the US market, so it’s either accept decline or go for export. Having chosen the latter, hire someone to make an economic case for it and ‘persuade’ some politicians that this is where the nation’s future lies – the export of primary products.

    The economic case hinges on China’s current hunger for coal being built-in to the model for a few decades. Not a sound assumption, to my mind, but there it is.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    In 2009 the US used 94.6 Quads, of which 19.7 were from coal.
    In 2010 the US used 98.01 Quads, of which 20.73 were from coal.
    in 2011 the US used 98.29 Quads of which 20.41 was from coal.
    Source of historic data, and projections:

    If the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory gets around to a 2011 version of its nifty 2010 flowchart and 2009 flowchart, that would aid the conversation.

  7. Paul Klinkman says:

    Natural gas is relatively hard to export to China. It takes energy to liquefy natural gas, and if revolutionaries come by with a shoulder-mounted RPG, the stuff can leak out of a supertanker and cause a monster of an explosion.

    In contrast, coal is relatively easy to export to China. Drop the rocks into railroad cars, dump them into the freighter and sail. Also, China doesn’t care how many millions of their own peasants get mercury poisoning or die from asthma, so coal works out pretty well for them.

    Coal use is dropping in the United States, but coal mining is going great guns here. We’re still enabling climate change when we send our mountains of coal to China.

  8. Paul Klinkman says:

    Natural gas, the climate change gas methane, and the main ingredient in flatulence are all one and the same gas. The worst connection between natural gas and climate change is noticed when extra methane can be detected in the atmosphere in areas with lots of fracking. Natural gas may in fact put half the carbon per BTU into the atmosphere and natural gas doesn’t spew mercury and other slurry pond nasties, but they more than make up for coal’s carbon release with methane releases.

    Natural Gas: the other climate change fossil fuel.

  9. Gilbert EngageAmerica says:

    Coal usage may be falling but that doesn’t mean that its totally out. Coal still account for over 1/3 of the energy provided to US homes. That means there’s not only a sizable industry, but a large number of jobs who are subject to what goes on with coal ( What is clear is that even though we may be moving away from coal, we’re not done with it yet. Acknowledging transition as we continue the process, will be crucial to the next stages of our economic recovery as we move from one resource to the next.

  10. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    It is possible that coal consumption in china may be running into a great wall. Remember that china is a brutal dictatorship, and economic figures are never trustworthy. Economists are questioning china’s current economic figures, and there appears to be a glut of coal in china, due to decreasing industrial output.

    I believe that china is long overdue for a serious economic downturn, not just a slow down in growth. China has already imported so much of the west’s industrial employment, now america and europe are suffering, and can no longer afford to buy what china produces. Also, china pumped up an american style real estate bubble in recent years, and now that is crashing.

    It also makes sense for china to use renewables that are produced domestically, instead of importing coal, especially as their economic growth winds down. china is capitalist, but they are mercentalist capitalist, which means they want to keep their economic activity inside their borders, unlike america.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for China to collapse. Why not concentrate on your own country’s huge problems rather than busying yourself interfering everywhere else on the planet. It does not make you well beloved.

  12. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    My country and china are the same economically, along with saudi arabia. Wall $treet is depending on china to grow, they don’t care about american, they probably prefer that america declines while china grows, so they can grow their profits while putting romney in power.

    China is a capitalist dictatorship and is supported by wall $6reet, i will concentrate on helping to bring about the collapse of both dictatorships.