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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Last Monday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he will repeal the Obama administration’s regulation to curb power plant carbon emissions, telling coal miners in Kentucky that “the war on coal is over.” The next day he kept his promise, issuing a proposed rule to eliminate the Clean Power Plan.

It was hardly a surprise. After all, President Trump has called climate change a “hoax” and vowed during his campaign to bring back coal jobs, which is why Pruitt made his preliminary announcement in Kentucky, where workers have a direct economic stake.

Despite the rhetoric, however, Pruitt and Trump can’t alter the harsh reality of the U.S. coal industry: Terminating the Clean Power Plan isn’t going to bring it back.

Consider the facts: As recently as 2008, coal-fired power plants generated half of all U.S. electricity. Since then, demand for coal has dropped steadily due to cheap natural gas, new wind and solar projects, energy efficiency initiatives, and bad investment decisions, forcing three of the four largest U.S. coal companies — and smaller ones as well — into bankruptcy. Today, coal accounts for about 30 percent of U.S. electricity generation.

As for jobs, mechanization displaced miners years ago. In 1980, more than 228,000 people worked in the coal industry. In July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry employed only 50,400. Employment is especially anemic in Kentucky, which supplies 7 percent of the nation’s coal, making it the third-largest coal-producing state. The coal industry employed just 5,600 people in Kentucky in July, according to the BLS, a mere 0.28 percent of the state’s nonfarm working population and 70 percent fewer than at the end of 2008.

Mining jobs aside, according to a new Union of Concerned Scientists analysisthe rapid transition away from coal-powered electricity is likely to continue no matter what the Trump administration does.

“A significant portion of today’s coal fleet can’t compete economically with cleaner energy options,” said Jeremy Richardson, a UCS senior energy analyst and the report’s lead author. “That’s particularly the case in the Southeast, where operational costs for coal units are considerably higher than what utilities would have to pay for natural gas or renewables.”

Coal Plant Retirements Will Continue

The numbers tell the story: Nine years ago, 1,256 turbine units at 526 coal-fired power plants had a generating capacity of nearly 357 gigawatts (GW). (One gigawatt can power some 700,000 average homes.) Now, 706 units at 329 coal-fired power plants have a capacity of 284 GW — 20 percent less. In the intervening years, utilities converted 98 units to burn natural gas and retired 452 others.

Of the remaining 706 units, utilities have already announced plans to either retire or convert 163 more by 2030, amounting to roughly 18 percent of total U.S. coal capacity. But even that does not provide the full picture: UCS identified another 122 units at 58 plants that are uneconomic compared with natural gas — an additional 20 percent of coal capacity that is ripe for retirement. Taken together, UCS analysis shows that U.S. coal-fired electricity capacity could drop by more than a third in the next 15 years.

This inevitable decline will affect some states far more than others. Ironically, the state that consumes the highest percentage of uneconomic coal-fired electricity is West Virginia, the second-largest U.S. coal-producing state. UCS found that 12 of the 19 coal-fired units currently operating in the state are ripe for retirement, accounting for some 57 percent of the state’s electricity. Four other states are generating more than 20 percent of their electricity from uneconomic coal-fired units: Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Fewer Coal Plants, Better Health

Shutting down more old, inefficient coal units or converting them to run on natural gas will undoubtedly have a positive effect on public health. The data show that tighter pollution controls and closures already have dramatically reduced toxic coal plant pollutants linked to cancer and cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological diseases. Between 2004 and 2012, for example, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions — the main components of fine particulate pollution — dropped 68 percent and 55 percent, respectively, according to a 2015 Clean Air Task Force study. As a result, the study found, the number of asthma attacks attributable to coal plant pollution plunged 77 percent, heart attacks decreased 69 percent, hospital admissions plummeted 74 percent, and premature deaths declined 68 percent, from 23,600 to 7,500.

Closing more coal plants would particularly benefit low-income communities and communities of color, which are disproportionately harmed by coal’s toxic emissions. A 2012 NAACP study found that the nearly 6 million Americans who lived within 3 miles of a coal plant in 2000 had an average per capita income of $26,000 in today’s dollars — 15 percent lower than the national average — and 39 percent were people of color. According to UCS, by 2016 the number of Americans living within 3 miles of a coal plant was down to 3.3 million, and when the units scheduled for retirement are shuttered, fewer than 2 million will live that close.

According to an August 2016 Carnegie Mellon study in the journal Energy, converting all currently operating coal power plants to natural gas would further reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 percent and 60 percent, respectively. But coal plants are also one of the nation’s largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for roughly 20 percent. Replacing them with natural gas would not do enough to reduce the electric power sector’s contribution to climate change, not only because the burning of natural gas produces carbon dioxide, but also because gas leaks at drilling sites, processing plants and pipelines release methane, a more powerful heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide. The UCS analysis recommends a better approach.

The Case for Renewable Energy

“In states where many outmoded coal units will likely close, a wholesale shift from one fossil fuel to another is tempting, but it would be a big mistake,” said Sam Gomberg, a UCS senior energy analyst and coauthor of the new UCS report. “Aside from the fact that it wouldn’t adequately combat global warming, there are other problems with relying too heavily on natural gas, including yo-yoing prices and utilities getting stuck with obsolete infrastructure.” To avoid these pitfalls, Gomberg said, states should diversify their energy mix with renewable resources such as wind and solar power, energy efficiency, and emerging technologies, including battery storage and smart meters.

Given the scale and scope of the energy transition now under way, the choices utilities make to replace coal will have a major impact on public health, the environment, and economic justice.

“Our analysis makes it abundantly clear that the transition away from coal is continuing and it’s long past time for Congress and the administration to drop the false premise that killing environmental safeguards will bring back coal jobs,” said Richardson. “Cities and states need to prepare for this next wave of coal plant retirements and work with local communities to figure out how to avoid an overdependence on natural gas and ensure that the benefits of transitioning to a clean energy economy flow to communities equitably.”



Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Columbia Journalism Review, The Hill and many other publications.


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6 responses to “Climate Deniers In Washington Can’t Save Big Coal”

  1. FireBaron says:

    Here is the biggest problem with big coal – most energy producers would have to spend billions to retrofit their plants from Natural Gas to coal, and that’s not including the environmental protections Teflon Donnie will waive. Too much to pay for a switch. So it is not cost effective for them to do so.

    • Independent1 says:

      Hopefully that will happen; that Pruitt’s attempt to resurrect coal production will fail. As it’s estimated that over 30,000+ people a year die from lung illnesses that are primarily created by the spewing ot toxic pollutants from coal-fired power plants (about the same number that die in auto accidents). Of course, what are 30,000+ lives to the likes of worthless people like Pruitt, Trump and their supporters??

      • JPHALL says:

        You should say them or their children.

        • Independent1 says:

          Yeah! Good point! What’s really baffling to me is that these clueless morons totally ignore the dangers they are not only putting themselves into, they seem to refuse to realize that they’re also endangering the lives of their families and future descendants (grandchildren and on and on); and all for the sake of money and pleasure today. They’re totally ignoring the futures of their families along with themselves over not only the dangers of coal burning but also with their constant refusal to believe in global warming.

  2. The picture above of so many mentally-deficient Americans is a sad commentary on an ongoing diminution of intellect in the country. Isn’t it obvious to these sad sacks that coal —and oil—are doomed to go the way of the dinosaurs?

    What part of “coal stunts the growth of children, leaves the children in coal-processing regions susceptible to higher incidences of lung-related ailments, will hamper the children’s mental development” do these air-heads not understand??

    I could go on, but these are questions someone needs to explain in elementary school language to these parents who could care less about the health of their children. And chances are, a good number of them will rail against a woman’s decision to make up her mind about reproduction choices, out of a pretense for concern for the fetus, while at the same time showing a callous disregard for their own children.

  3. The tobacco interests in America long ago had waged a successful campaign against the scientific evidence showing the harm of smoking, and for decades were successful until the flood of data supporting the dangers of smoking couldn’t be covered up despite the mounting evidence that kept growing in volumes. Still the Tobacco interests and morally-compromised “scientists” kept denying the obvious, until the lawsuits of wrongful deaths and the payouts to the plaintiffs proved too much to handle even for RJReynolds and company.

    The Coal and Oil Industry are now trying the same con game, using loads of deceptive ads which thus far have thoroughly duped coal enthusiasts. And what better con artist to have front and center in this losing effort by desperate folks than a fake President—Donald Trump.

    Some people have willingly chosen to be idiots, and therefore there is nothing that can reverse that except death by coal dust I’m afraid to say. Hopefully they will expire in time for their children to get medical care to reverse the damage, if it’s not too late.

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