How American Coal Could Come Back Leaner and Cleaner
It’s been a wild month for the U.S. coal industry. When the Paris climate agreement entered into effect on November 5, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both thought they had signed the death warrant of the American coal industry. Just over two weeks later, the new president-elect has promised to undo the Obama era’s “job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy.” All of a sudden, coal has gone from black sheep to DC darling.
Had Clinton won the White House, the Paris deal would have given her and her environmentalist backers the cover they needed to put every coal worker in the country out of business. The agreement seeks to limit global rise in temperatures below 3.6° Fahrenheit and promote the deployment of renewable energies. Obama, who had the whole agreement drafted in a way that would let him do a runaround on Congress, naturally hailed it as a “historic day” in the fight against global warming in which he himself was the main hero.
The Paris deal played well for the Left's environmental agenda, but it was catastrophic for U.S. fossil fuel industries. Coal in particular got walloped: between Obama's policies and the specter of a global regime that would force both the U.S. and other countries to abandon coal power, American plants and mines have closing at an unprecedented rate, with thousands of workers losing their jobs and entire communities decimated. Some of the nation's largest coal producers have recently filed for bankruptcy, with Peabody Energy, the world's largest coal company, as well as Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources among the recent casualties. The Peabody closure alone could put 5,000 employees out of work.
True, some of the damage done to the coal industry has been a result of the rise of shale gas, but much of it comes down to burdensome regulations Obama and his EPA saddled on the coal industry. In 2015, the Obama administration stopped giving leases for new coal mines on public lands, which is the source for around 40 percent of coal in the U.S. National Economic Research Associates found the EPA's most recent mercury admission standards, which went into effect in 2015, will cost the economy $25.6 billion per year. Things were bound to get worse under the Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and specifically targets coal.
The consequences of these policies have been disastrous for coal country. In all, 31,000 workers in the sector have been made “redundant” since 2009. Employment in U.S. coal industry is now at its lowest levels since the 1980s, and in the last six years, over 230 U.S. coal-fired plants have closed or will close soon. Almost five percent of American coal capacity was shuttered just last year, with states like Ohio, Georgia, and Kentucky hit especially hard. Of course, it isn’t just coal workers and communities that have been hit. Declining production caused electricity prices to rise, and coal industry stocks dropped over $30 billion in value since 2009.
After eight years of slow, excruciating decline, coal country had its revenge on the Democrats by helping take the White House away from them and giving it back to the one candidate that spoke to their pain. Unsurprisingly, the Left has responded by declaring Trump’s election a disaster for climate change, but even they should be able to find cause for optimism: after all, president-elect Trump’s transition message made it clear that it was clean coal he’d be bringing back.
In reality, new technologies mean coal power can be made cleaner than ever. By the EPA’s own measure, emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants released by coal plants have fallen by more than half over the last 40 years. There have been tremendous breakthroughs in clean coal technology, which uses carbon capture and storage (CCS) to remove the vast majority of carbon dioxide from coal power emissions. If this technology were given a genuine chance rather than being written off as a myth, clean energy might not have to mean an economic death sentence for tens of thousands of hardworking Americans. Under President Trump, clean coal looks like it will have its chance.
In this, as in many other things, we are already lagging behind. There are already successful CCS plants in operation overseas: a coal plant in Chennai, India, for example, has adopted what its creators described as a revolutionary new technique that can make clean coal commercially viable for the first time. Using a new solvent that reduces the cost of carbon capture by up to two thirds, the plant captures around 97 percent of carbon emissions at a cost of just $30 per ton of carbon -- cheaper than most renewables. Further adding to the benefits of the process, the carbon is made into soda ash and used to make everything from glass to detergents. The plant in India is not the only successful clean coal project: the W.A. Parish plant in Texas is set become the largest clean coal plant in the world this year. With Trump in office, more are bound to come.
While many environmentalists will swear up and down that coal has no place in their energy plans, clean coal will wind up playing a vital role in curbing emissions and ultimately do more to curb greenhouse gas emissions than renewable energy sources. Choosing to eschew CCS in reaching global emissions targets could more than double their cost, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Worse, it would rob the U.S., with enough coal to power the nation for an estimated 500 years, of an invaluable source of energy security. Those fretting over Trump’s energy policy should take heart: saving the planet and saving American workers doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.