How the Paris Climate Deal Is Resurrecting American Coal

When former President Barack Obama signed the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 (COP21), it was widely seen as the death knell for the beleaguered U.S. coal mining industry. But what was supposed to be Obama’s apotheosis in his pursuit of environmentalism at the expense of American jobs and competitiveness turned out to be one of the main forces that propelled Trump to November’s shock victory. With the shoe clearly on the other foot, the White House is now faced with a choice: should it stay or should it leave the agreement?

To be fair, much of the hate directed at the Accord comes from the way Obama played roughshod with it. The former president made no secret of his hatred for coal country. He unashamedly admitted to as much back in 2008 during his first presidential campaign, when he vowed to bankrupt any company attempting to build a coal-powered plant by aggressively slapping it with exorbitant charges on carbon emissions.

Years later, in blatant disregard of constitutional stipulations, the Obama White House concluded the Paris agreement without consulting either the Senate or Congress. The decision to circumvent our major legislative bodies is particularly disquieting as it speaks to the Obama administration’s contempt for anyone who disagreed with its environmental policies. This misplaced environmental zeal has caused enormous job losses and bankruptcies of major players in the coal sector, reducing a once flourishing industry to a shadow of its former self. Adding insult to injury, Obama left the Oval Office kicking and screaming. By last-minute executive order, he rolled out new regulations to crack down on coal mining across the country, despite the tens of millions of dollars the move was projected to cost the industry every year.

But putting emotions aside, in an unexpected and ironic twist, the COP21 presents an opportunity for coal to beat Obama at his own game. And this is exactly what is happening. America’s largest players in the coal and oil industries, including Cloud Peak and Exxon Mobil, have reversed their opposition to the deal and have advised Trump to remain within the framework, arguing that it is better to be part of the club and help steer policy rather than excluding oneself from the debate.

Indeed, the Trump White House and American coal producers can use their participation in international talks on the future of the world’s energy mix to promote the development of high efficiency, low-emission (HELE) coal-fired power plants and carbon capture storage (CSS) technology. All major international bodies agree on this point: the goals of the COP21 cannot be implemented without upgrading coal plants. As such, implementing the accord could turn the U.S. into a global clean coal leader, save thousands of jobs in the process, and ensure the continuation of an industry worth billions of dollars to the country’s economy.

Clean coal -- an American export?

Clearly, the interests of U.S. coal and the country’s wider energy industry will be best served by retaining a seat at future international climate policy discussions. At a time when clean coal technology is creating new possibilities, working with other countries is the only way forward for U.S. coal. Particularly now that the industry’s future is so heavily dependent on exports to foreign markets, Washington cannot allow others to dictate policies that will create unfavorable market conditions for American coal producers.

Aggressively exploring these opportunities has the potential to bring about a renaissance in the U.S. coal industry. With a renewed focus, American energy firms can look to emulate advances made by Asian competitors such as India, which has demonstrated the technological feasibility of carbon capture and utilization at a facility in Chennai. In fact, New Delhi is actively looking toward the U.S. for increased technology and energy cooperation in the clean coal sector, making it possible for the U.S. to become an industry frontrunner.  

At the same time, India is a major market for clean coal technology. Instead of passing harsh regulations and forcing coal plants to close – as Obama imagined – the Indian government embarked on an ambitious plan to convert 40 GW of old coal plants into “supercritical” ones using HELE technology. In fact, in what sounds like music to environmentalists and climate realists alike, the country’s energy minister recently quipped that upgrading those coal plants will reduce CO2 emissions more than building 100 GW of solar panels.

The White House has said it will make a decision as to whether or not the U.S. will remain as a signatory to the Paris Agreement before G7 leaders meet in Italy next month. If he wants to keep his promise to America’s coal mining communities and secure the long-term future of an industry ravaged by his predecessor’s obsession with bringing about its end, the president would do well to listen to the growing number of industry experts and members of his own team who are vocally advocating the benefits of remaining inside the climate tent. If Trump plays this right, he will not only save U.S. energy firms’ global competitiveness, and secure many thousands of jobs; he will also add a plot twist ending to Obama’s anti-coal drama. Obama wanted coal dead but inadvertently he provided for its revival.   

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