Let’s start with a fact we can’t ignore: we need to transition away from carbon intensive energy sources like coal — and pretty quickly.
That’s been lost in the current election-year politicking around energy. Over the last few months, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have twisted themselves in every direction trying to convince voters that they support coal more than the other candidate, and that the other candidate really hates the industry.
Both Obama and Romney have been on the record explaining in no uncertain terms why pollution from coal is so dangerous for the climate and public health. But in the kind of bizarre reversal that only an election can cultivate, both men have run ads attacking the other for their previous comments on the need to transition away from coal.
Of course, Obama — who despite his recent silence on climate, talks extensively about the clean resources of the future — is the one catching all the heat from the coal industry.
Supported by tens of millions of dollars in coal ads and campaign donations, Republicans have crafted a disciplined messaging strategy around Obama’s supposed “war on coal.”
It’s a campaign that puts energy progressives in a tough spot defending the need to reduce carbon pollution while simultaneously claiming that Obama isn’t waging a war on coal. (The same goes for increases in oil drilling).
We’ll say what Obama and almost every other politician won’t say this election: phasing out the burning of carbon-intensive resources — waging a War on Carbon Pollution — is necessary and admirable if we want to address climate change.
But we’ll also call it like we see it. The supposed “war on coal” is a clever election-year messaging strategy that simplifies the complicated reality of what coal is facing.
So while the Chamber of Commerce and the American Council on Clean Coal Electricity spend their last millions in the coming weeks to push this campaign, keep in mind these five facts about coal:
1. Regulations have a limited role in current coal woes
We could see up to 75 gigawatts of coal plant closures over the next 5-8 years, resulting in a turnover of around 5-10 percent of our total electricity generation fleet by 2020. Surely this must be due to EPA overreach and Obama’s war on coal, right?
Actually, as a recent report from the Brattle Group points out, most of the recently announced closures are “primarily due to changing market conditions, not environmental rule revisions, which have trended towards more lenient requirements and schedules.”
Coal electricity fell dramatically this spring, but it climbed back up in the summer. Why? Because when natural gas prices hovered near record lows, plant operators either switched fuels or ramped down coal plants. But when prices started climbing back up, they burned more coal. This relationship illustrates how the low price of gas — a trend fossil fuel hawks have championed — has influenced the recent decline in coal.
“It’s the market forces that are pushing [coal] out of the market,” Alan Beamon of the Energy Information Administration told the Charleston Gazette recently.
We also have a very old coal fleet in this country; the median age of U.S. coal plants is 46 years. Many plants are ready for retirement anyway and rather than keeping them open, companies are looking toward natural gas or renewables. So yes, new Environmental Protection Agency rules on mercury and air toxics have influenced recent decisions by operators to keep some plants open. But in many cases, these are the oldest, dirtiest power plants that need to be immediately dealt with — an undeniably positive outcome.
2. While the government gives away taxpayer-owned coal, exports surge
According to the latest figures from the Energy Information Administration, the coal industry is on track to ship record amounts of coal overseas in 2012, surpassing the previous all-time high set in 1981. And, indirectly, the U.S. government is helping the industry do it.
Public lands currently account for 43.2 percent of the nation’s coal. Over the last 30 years, the Bureau of Land Management has held “auctions” with one bidder and sold the resource for almost nothing, keeping coal prices artificially low. Earlier this year, the government held a number of large auctions for taxpayer-owned coal. These include the sale of 402 million tons from the South Porcupine tract in Wyoming in May, 721 million tons from Wyoming’s North Porcupine tract in June, and 3.2 million tons in Colorado in August. In one recent auction, the largest private coal company in the world, Peabody Energy, secured taxpayer-owned coal for $1.11 per ton. The company will likely be able to sell it in China for around $100 per ton.
According to a recent analysis from Tom Sanzillo of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, this noncompetitive leasing has amounted to a $28.9 billion subsidy to the coal industry over the last three decades.
3. The jobs picture is mixed, but there is no collapse
The picture here is indeed mixed. There have been recent job cuts in the coal mining sector — most notably Alpha Natural Resources laying off 1,200 workers company-wide. This is due to new “market fundamentals” that include cheap natural gas, higher productivity at mines, and in some areas, stronger EPA permitting requirements for mountaintop removal. Interestingly, overall job numbers haven’t matched the war rhetoric. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Virginia and West Virginia supported more coal jobs between January and June of this year than during the same time in 2008 and 2010. In Ohio, coal mining jobs have increased by 300 over the last four years, while production is up 7 percent.
(Note: the chart below does not reflect 1,300 West Virginia layoffs in the first half of 2012, which brought the state’s coal mining employment back down to Q4 2008 levels. According to Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette, this is still the seventh highest number of jobs over the last 10 years. See Ward’s response in the comment section for more).
Analysis shows that the net employment impact of the changes underway in the coal industry will be positive. According to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, the shifts in power plant construction, pollution control installation, and manufacturing could net thousands of jobs by 2015.
Companies are already showing that’s the case. American Electric Power, one of the largest utility companies in the country, hired more than 1,000 construction workers to build a scrubber at of its plants. The company’s CEO described the impact last fall: “We have to hire plumbers, electricians, painters, folks who do that kind of work when you retrofit a plant,” Morris said. “Jobs are created in the process — no question about that.”
And in Iowa this August, Alliant Energy announced that it would hire 400 new workers to install pollution controls at a 726-MW coal plant in Ottumwa. “The project at OGS will create approximately 400 good-paying construction jobs for Iowa’s working families and foster future economic growth while making Iowa’s air cleaner,” said a spokesman for the company.
4. The coal industry has made these same claims before
Every time new changes occur — particularly regulatory changes — the coal industry questions the science and says they’ll be a catastrophe for workers. Greenpeace has compiled a database of advertisements from the coal industry pushing this message.
But what has been the real impact of environmental standards? Since the EPA was founded more than 40 years ago, clean air and water standards have caused no economic collapse, no mass layoffs, no spikes in electricity prices. According to EPA figures (chart below), since the early 70′s when the organization started enforcing regulations to clean up water and air around the country, the six common pollutants (ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and lead) have dropped 63%, while GDP has grown over 200%.
“Based on the available literature, there’s not much evidence that EPA regulations are causing major job losses or major job gains,” said Richard Morgenstern, a former EPA official under the Reagan Administration, speaking to the Washington Post.
5. The coal industry and Republicans have fought hard against new health protections for miners
This is perhaps the most egregious element of the war on coal campaign. The coal industry and its political allies are loudly attacking Obama for “betting against” American coal workers. But when it comes to actually protecting the health of American coal workers, they are silent.
An investigation from National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity released this summer revealed that cases of black lung have doubled in the last decade. Since 1995, more than 10,000 coal miners have died from black lung across the country, according to an analysis of government data. This is largely due to poor coal dust regulations.
So what have these supposed champions of coal miners done about it? In spite of this growing public health epidemic, House Republicans drafted language in a recent bill that would explicitly prevent funding for any new coal dust rules to limit miners’ exposure. And this is the way it’s been since the 1990’s, when Republicans controlled Congress.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said the budget measure “amounts to nothing more than a potential death sentence for thousands of American miners. Preventing black lung isn’t a matter of over-regulation. It’s a matter of life and death.”
Republican Congressional officials responded with a typical cut-and-paste anti-regulation refrain: “It is the chairman’s position and the position of the subcommittee that that particular regulation is harmful and costly to the industry and to the economy in general.”
More than 10,000 miners have died of Black Lung since the 90’s. But the only reaction to the situation is that “regulation is harmful and costly to the industry.”
This robotic response perfectly encapsulates the messaging around the so-called war on coal. No matter what the goal — to reduce air pollution, address climate change, or transition the sector and its workers to a clean energy system — the industry and its allies are always going to repeat the exact same talking points.