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.