Apparently unable to find real activists, the coal industry paid astroturfers $50 to wear pro-coal T-shirts at an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearing yesterday.
The EPA hearings, held in Chicago and Washington, D.C., were focused on the agency’s first-ever carbon standards for new power plants. The industry has adamantly opposed these standards, as well as standards on mercury -- a pollutant that even Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) admits is harmful.
This year, coal is throwing around its weight by spending tens of millions of dollars on media advertising and political contributions.
The world inside a snow globe is usually pretty idyllic -- just pure white snow falling lightly on famous landmarks. Not really an accurate reflection of the environmental toll of mass-produced tourist kitsch. So the artists of the Dorothy collective have produced a limited run of two coal power plant globes, complete with ash-flake "snow." One has already been sold -- but the other can be yours for £2,000, or a little over $3,100.
There are at present six proposals to export coal from Northwest ports. If all of these proposals are built, and if all of them operate at full capacity, the Northwest would be shipping 145 million tons of per coal year.
When burned, that coal will produce roughly 262 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. It’s such a staggering figure that it’s a little hard to grasp. So here’s some context:
A couple of weeks ago, I explained the situation the U.S. coal industry is in: domestic electricity use has leveled off, utilities are switching to cheap natural gas and wind, and the EPA is finally cracking down on dirty old coal plants. All that leaves U.S. coal in a pinch. Their main hope for the future is to increase coal exports. That's why the fight over coal export terminals matters.
Arguably, though, the coal-export fight is secondary. From a climate-hawk point of view, it would be better just to leave the damn coal in the ground.
Is that even within our power as concerned U.S. citizens? As it happens, yes, it is, because we own much of the coal! The coal that companies like Peabody are itching to export comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. And most of the land in the Powder River Basin is owned by the federal government -- that is to say, it's owned by you and me.
The U.S. coal industry is flailing. Utilities are stampeding from coal to natural gas and coal mining companies are seeing their stock prices plunge. The industry is responding the way it always has to threat: blaming government regulation and pouring money into influence peddling.
Judging from their latest efforts, however, they have very little to work with. The latest flail is to try to make a big deal out of the fact that the Obama administration recently added a bit on "clean coal" to its "all of the above" energy page. It's Energywebpagegate! Or something.
From such thin threads is America's Power attempting to weave an attack:
In the first quarter of this year, the portion of the country's electricity that came from coal was almost 20 percent less than in the same period last year. And overall, the Energy Information Administration predicts, coal consumption in the electric sector will decrease by 14 percent this year.
Of course, there's a reason for this, as Stephen Lacey explains at Climate Progress, and the reason is natural gas. Natural gas is cheap, cheap, cheap, so now we're burning that instead of coal.
A version of this post originally appeared on Compass, a Sierra Club blog.
As the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, I have to do a lot of traveling, which means spending more time than I would like away from my 2-year-old daughter, Hazel. Just the other day, I got home from a trip to find Hazel and her dad pretty exhausted after three days without Mom. I hope that someday, she’ll understand that I had to be away sometimes because I was working hard to protect her from the pollution that is a very real threat to her future.
For Hazel, I hope when she’s my age that the air and water are clean and safe, the mountains of her home state of West Virginia are still standing, and the threat of climate disruption has passed. I think that future is within our grasp, thanks to the work we are doing to move America beyond coal.
Way back in his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama introduced a new idea, a "Clean Energy Standard" to boost America's use of low-carbon electricity. As a piece of legislation it went nowhere, of course, because ... Congress. But as a conceptual sketch of the future of energy, it had an interesting feature: It included everything except coal.
Why? Because any metric of "clean" rules out coal. You can loosen the definition to include natural gas (half as much CO2 as coal, a small fraction of the conventional pollutants) and nuclear. But there is no comparative standard of cleanliness that will accommodate coal. It is the benchmark of filthiness.
Obama's recent "all of the above" energy comments have had the same feature. If you listen closely, it's not really all of the above. It's everything except coal (save the occasional rhetorical nods to "clean coal," which amounts to saying, "unicorns will also be allowed in our zoo").
Politically speaking, Obama can not come out and tell the frank truth about coal. Its political roots are too deep in his own party. But in his energy rhetoric and strategy, he is implicitly acknowledging what is increasingly obvious: Coal is not compatible with a safe, secure, prosperous 21st century. It is responsible for most local air pollution -- soot, mercury, ozone, coal ash, etc. -- and, projecting out, it's going to be responsible for the bulk of climate change, especially when burned in Asia. The only way to use coal without exacerbating climate change is to add wildly expensive carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) facilities that raise costs by a third and don't do anything to eliminate local pollutants. Proper economic analysis of the actually existing coal sector shows that it imposes costs greater than the value of the electricity it creates.
It's an antiquated, primitive fuel, perhaps an unfortunate necessity for now, but nonetheless unfortunate. The U.S. is right to be leaving it behind for natural gas, renewables, and efficiency.
Obama may not say any of this out loud, but the coal industry is all too aware of it. That's why it's busy mounting a frantic lobbying effort to halt its slide into obsolescence.
“We're fighting for coal,” said Lisa Camooso Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Coalition of Clean Coal Electricity, a trade group that has announced a $40 million campaign in defense of coal.
Side bar: It's amusing that ACCCE doesn't even pretend to be promoting "clean" coal anymore, despite its name. It's just shilling for coal outright now.
Last month [ACCCE] announced it would sponsor Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports team. An 18-wheel, mobile classroom will also be featured at NASCAR events to showcase the benefits of the fossil fuel, said Miller, the group's spokeswoman, in an interview.
That's a pure culture-war play right there. Go to the people who already hate Obama and try to convince them that coal is just like Christmas and marriage -- one more American thing the Kenyan socialist wants to destroy.
Big Coal is doing everything it can to blame the decline of coal -- which is now providing just 42 percent of U.S. electricity, down from its once-lofty 50+ percent heyday -- on Obama and EPA regulations. But here's the thing that must haunt the dreams of coal executives: Even if they can do some political damage to Obama with this attack, it won't stop coal's descent. Its descent is not primarily about EPA regs. It's primarily about cheap natural gas. The election won't change that.
U.S. coal's only hope at this point is export to Asia. Stoking the culture war won't do much to achieve that. As for the U.S., the trend here, as in most other developed democracies, is toward cleaner electricity. All this frantic lobbying gets attention in the media and the Beltway bubble, but in the end, the coal industry, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., is just driving in circles.
If big coal companies get their way, the Pacific Northwest will soon become a major hub for exporting dirty coal to Asia.
In Oregon and Washington, proposals to construct several coal export terminals are on the table. If they move forward, about 150 million tons of coal each year would travel by train from Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to ports in Oregon and Washington, where it would be shipped to China, India, South Korea, and Japan.
Grist’s David Roberts published an excellent primer on the topic earlier this week, concluding as follows: