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Fighting coal export terminals: It matters

Photo by the Rainforest Action Network.

As I wrote in my last post -- and have been writing for years -- coal is on the decline in the U.S. The biggest driver of this trend is the current low cost of natural gas from fracking, but it also has to do with increasing competition from renewables, the aging of the U.S. coal fleet, organized grassroots opposition, new EPA regulations, and slowing demand for electricity [PDF].

The rapid move away from coal is hitting U.S. coal-mining companies where it hurts. The Wall Street Journal reports on the fortunes of Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, the second- and third-largest coal-mining firms in the U.S.:

On a 52-week basis, shares of both Arch and Alpha are down 72%. ...

Arch is expected to see its profit fall by 44%, to $33 million. Alpha—still struggling to digest Massey Energy Inc. after spending $7.1 billion to acquire the competitor last year—is seen swinging to a first-quarter loss of $18 million, down from a year-ago profit of $49 million.

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Which banks provide the most support for coal?

A new report [PDF] from the Rainforest Action Network, BankTrack, and the Sierra Club looks at which of the biggest banks in the country provide the most support for the coal industry. If you count the number of transactions that a bank was involved in, Bank of America comes out the worst (44 transactions) with JP Morgan Chase not far behind (42 transactions). But in terms of hypocrisy, none of them are doing well:

These grades are based on the banks' stated policies and "how well they uphold these policies based on investments, transactions of coal mining and coal burning utility companies."

Read more: Climate & Energy, Coal

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U.S. coal is on the decline, and utility execs know it

Every week brings a new story about coal's decline in America. Here are two from last week.

One is about American Electric Power, the nation's largest electric utility, based in Ohio but ranging over 11 states in the South and Midwest. AEP is the farthest thing from a good actor in the utility sector. Between 2008 and 2010, the company raised executive compensation by 30 percent, laid off 2,600 workers, spent almost $29 million lobbying the federal government, and paid a tax rate of -9 percent [PDF]. Yes, negative nine. It's that kind of company.

So it's significant that last week, AEP reaffirmed its intention to accelerate a shift away from coal. By 2020, according to CEO Nicholas Akins, coal will fall from 67 percent of AEP's assets to 50 percent.

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Power Shift turns Bank of America ATMs into truth-dispensing machines

What are you supporting when you leave your money in the oily hands of Bank of America? Among other evils, investment in coal-fired power plants and the bankrolling of climate change. Normally you don't think about that. You just get your money and scoot away. But Power Shift activists forced ATM users to think twice about what they were really doing by mindlessly punching buttons when they turned a bunch of Bank of America ATMs into "automated truth machines."

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Happy Earth Day, Mitt!

Mitt RomneyMitt Romney, brownwasher in chief. (Photo by Gage Skidmore.)

Mitt Romney might be the country's No. 1 brownwasher. While corporate America tries to paint itself as greener than it really is, corporate America's presumptive candidate tries to paint himself as browner than he really is -- or at least was.

We aren't fooled. Sure, he mocks efficient cars, extols the virtues of coal, and argues that we should be drill-baby-drilling our way to lower gas prices. Yes, he bashes the EPA and has packed his staff with EPA haters. OK, he wants to keep handing out billions to Big Oil and rubber-stamp the Keystone XL pipeline.

But if you chip away at that brown paint, there's a layer of green underneath. (As for what's beneath that layer, and then the one below that, who knows?) When he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney was about as green as Republicans get (if you don't count the now-disgraced Governator, and many Republicans don't). Check out these eco-friendly stances from Romney's past:

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New climate strategy: Buy the damn coal and keep it in the ground

shovels laying on coal fieldPut the shovels down and leave the coal alone.

I concluded my last post with a slogan: "Keep the damn coal in the ground." Lo and behold, along comes a new paper in the Journal of Political Economy that sketches what that strategy might look like: "Buy Coal! A Case for Supply-Side Environmental Policy." It's fascinating.

Climate change is an enormous collective action problem. Typically the focus has been on demand-side policies -- reducing fossil fuel consumption through taxes or mandates. Any "climate coalition" that adopts this strategy, however, has to worry about free riders that don't. Author Bård Harstad of Northwestern University summarizes:

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The only good coal is coal left in the ground

Coal use is declining in the U.S. and will likely decline further in the wake of new EPA rules. What will happen to the U.S. coal that isn't burned in the U.S.? Brad Plumer answers: We'll probably export it. If that's true, then there won't be much net climate benefit; the emissions will just come from Asia instead of North America.

And indeed, this is the next big fight for the environmental movement: blocking coal export terminals.

Of course, no environmental campaign would be complete without a Michael Levi post explaining why they're doing it wrong, and right on cue, here it is. The question Levi raises is this: Is the coal the U.S. exports supplementing or displacing foreign coal? If it's supplementing, then blocking exports would reduce emissions. But if it's displacing, it won't. Other countries will just burn coal from elsewhere.

Levi cites an International Energy Agency analysis of what would happen if global coal use were sharply curtailed. Apparently it shows that ...

... Chinese, Australian, and Indonesian production would be cut deeply, but that U.S. production would hold up far more strongly. This suggests, at a minimum, that substantial U.S. coal exports are compatible with a lower-carbon world.

Argh. I'm a big Levi fan, but this kind of thing drives me a little bonkers. It misses the forest for the trees.

It may be true that massive U.S. coal exports are compatible with a lower-carbon world, but it's highly unlikely that they are compatible with a lower-enough-carbon world. At some point, we really have to start taking seriously the massive amount of carbon reductions that will be required to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.

To prevent the climate from spiraling forever out of control, we're going to have to leave most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. That's hard to imagine in current circumstances, and it will remain hard to imagine until people start imagining it and writing about it and treating it as a live option.

If you understand the brutal logic of climate change, you realize that we desperately need to keep coal in the ground anywhere and everywhere it's possible. We're seriously going to tell U.S. climate activists to drop their fight against coal exports because some IEA model says it would be easier to reduce output in Indonesia? U.S. activists don't live in Indonesia. They have no influence in Indonesia.

If anything, the model shows that curtailing U.S. production would raise global coal prices more than curtailing Australian or Indonesian production, which is exactly what climate campaigners would want!

This is a really, really big problem we face. If we're going to come even close to coping with it, we're going to have to rethink all our assumptions about fossil fuels, including the wonk assumption that we can craft some sort of economically optimal glide path into the post-fossil-fuel era. The time when that might have been possible is past. It's time for blunt weapons. Keep the damn coal in the ground.

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Clean coal nonsense: New industry ad claims ‘real environmental progress’

Cross-posted from Climate Progress.

“The clock is ticking, America. It’s time we focused on reality instead of rhetoric.”

Finally, a national ad about the threat of climate change? Nope. It’s another piece of spin from the coal industry.

Under threat from cheap natural gas, savvy activist groups working overtime to shut down plants, and the declining cost of renewable energy, the coal industry has rolled out a new ad trying desperately to paint itself as “clean.”

Read more: Coal

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Anti-coal campaign is ‘the most significant achievement of American environmentalists’ since the 1970s


In Mother Jones, Mark Hertsgaard makes the case for the Sierra Club's anti-coal campaign as "the most significant achievement of American environmentalists since the passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act," as one source puts it. The group has shut down proposals for 166 coal-fired power plants (check out the map above or here). The key? The group was working outside of Washington, with the grassroots:

The movement's center of gravity was in the South and Midwest, "places like Oklahoma and South Dakota, not the usual liberal bastions where you'd expect environmental victories," [Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign] recalls ...

[E]conomic trends only made coal somewhat vulnerable, argues Tom Sanzillo, a former New York state deputy comptroller who has worked with the Beyond Coal campaign; it was grassroots activism that leveraged vulnerability into outright defeat. The movement's strength was grounded in retail politics—people talking with friends and neighbors, pestering local media, packing regulatory hearings, protesting before state legislatures, filing legal challenges, and more. The movement had no official membership rolls; it was populated by clean energy advocates, public health professionals, community organizers, faith leaders, farmers, attorneys, [and] students …

Ironically, as the Sierra Club was galvanizing the grassroots against coal, it was catching backlash from anti-fracking activists for being overly friendly with the natural gas industry.

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If fossil fuel subsidies were distributed to every person, we’d each get $58/year

Globally, every year fossil fuels get six times as much money in subsidies than renewable energy. Given a world population of around 7 billion, that means every man woman and child on the planet is spending an average of $58 a year to prop this industry up, but only around $9 to support renewables.