Along with oil and natural gas, coal is an essential part of the energy tripod that keeps the American economy the largest in the world. In fact, coal is still America’s most abundant energy resource. As recently as 2009, it accounted for almost 25 percent of total U.S. energy consumption and was the origin of more than half the electricity produced in this country.
Even with the fracking revolution that has resulted in the discovery of untold natural gas resources, coal remains a vital piece of the U.S. energy mix. Unfortunately for ratepayers, President Obama’s pursuit of what some would call a “green energy” economic fantasy (underwritten by the U.S. taxpayers) has led to an apparent war on coal.
For example, under the cover of specious legal authority, federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency are engaged in regulatory overreach that threatens to sideline America’s coal industry. Nick Akins, CEO of American Electric Power, told Congress that 89 percent of the generations his company used to meet power demand last winter came from coal plants that are scheduled for retirement by 2015.
These are frightening numbers. The proposed EPA regulations behind all this will change the system of power generation in fundamental ways; by the agency’s own estimates, nationwide electricity prices will increase 6 or 7 percent, in some cases as much as 12 percent.
Closing down coal-fired utility plants will drive up consumer costs because there isn’t a way to replace the base power load these plants generate. Consequently, ratepayers can expect sharp increases in their monthly bills and must prepare for the eventual reality that there may not be enough energy available on the grid to permit Americans to heat and cool their homes, power their businesses, or drive the manufacturing renaissance many business economists expect over the next five years.
To its credit, the coal industry has made itself cleaner over the past several decades. The latest generation of coal-fired plants built over the past decade was constructed to significantly reduce the sulfur and nitrogen emissions that were the hallmark of its predecessors. In terms of the particulate matter they produce, by some estimates today's plants are as much as 90 percent cleaner than those that were on line in 1970 when President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act.
The facts are plain: President Obama and his allies in the green movement not only want to discourage the continued use of coal in the U.S. energy mix — they want to put an end to it. And that’s only step one. If allowed to succeed on that front, their next logical move would be to limit or ban exports outright, on the theory that what can’t be sent overseas can’t be burned by plants in China and India, thereby producing particulate matter and greenhouse gases that will exacerbate the problem of man-made climate change.
The proposed Electricity Security Act is a step in the right direction but does not nearly go far enough. It would, as the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said in its analysis of the bill, prohibit the EPA administrator "from issuing, implementing, or enforcing any proposed or final rule under the Clean Air Act that establishes a performance standard for greenhouse gas emissions from a new source that is a fossil fuel-fired electric utility generating unit,” unless the rules conform to standards set by Congress. True, it’s a much-needed stopgap measure, but it also keeps us stuck in one place when what America needs are ways to mine coal more efficiently in an even more environmentally conscious way, burned as cleanly as possible and carrying a greater share of the U.S. energy load.
That may sound counterintuitive — and certainly goes against conventional wisdom — but why not rely on improvements in technology to point the way to a cleaner, cheaper and more energy-secure future? Even if the United States is set to become a net exporter of energy once again, how does it make sense to lock up the nation’s most abundant energy resource so no one can use it to produce electricity?
It doesn’t make sense, which is something that is understood by most Americans but not by the elite opinion leaders and other influencers who enjoy tax subsidies for wind farms installed on their ranches and solar panels on the roofs of their beach houses. It’s easy to feel good about conserving your own carbon footprint when by your very actions you make those less fortunate pay more for theirs.
This argument is not going to be settled in Washington, and perhaps we’re all the better for it. The ivory tower environmentalists trying to pour cold water on coal-fired plants have one vision in mind. The miners and processors and shippers and everyone else who would be tossed out of work if their plan succeeds have another. You can see their unhappiness in the election returns.
West Virginia, which relies on a thriving coal industry for its economy, has reliably voted for Democrats for Congress since the 1950s. Those days are over, with almost the entire delegation about to be Republican for the first time in 60 years. In Kentucky, another state where coal is an important part of the economic infrastructure, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate carried nary a vote during the recent party primary in some precincts commonly known as “coal country.” These people know what the agenda is and they are having none of it, which is why the fight will continue until a sizable majority of Americans are persuaded to vote for their best interests instead of following the lead of climate scientists in Britain.
Once the economy recovers, if we are to meet America’s and the world’s growing demand for energy we have to think differently about coal and the role it plays in the economy and the generation of power. Just as we had to learn over the past 50 years to change the way we mined coal, America will learn to change the way we use it. As U.S. energy needs increase, we must find ways to use it more efficiently and in ways that are in accord with our desire to shift to cleaner-burning fuels. There’s just no way to do that without coal.Peter Roff, a former senior writer for United Press International, is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom.