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Bill Straub: With King Coal’s reign about over in the Commonwealth (and elsewhere), it’s on to natural gas

To paraphrase that great American intellectual, Sarah Palin, how is that beautiful, clean coal stuff working out for ya?

Well, not so hot, thanks.

Cloud Peak Energy, the nation’s third-largest coal mining company, headquartered in Wyoming, where the mineral is still as plentiful as kudzu in Georgia, has filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. It was one of the last of the nation’s big energy players to take the dive, following in the steps of outfits like Peabody Energy and Arch Coal before it.

Coal, which at one time dominated the energy market, is losing ground, and fast. At some point this summer, according to analysts, coal is expected to provide only 25 percent of the nation’s energy, down from 35 percent as recently as 2015. Natural gas, cleaner and cheaper, has supplanted coal as the resource of choice, already accounting for 40 percent of America’s power supply, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Linda Capuano, EIA’s administrator, recently told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development that natural gas and renewables have “displaced less economically competitive sources of electric power generation, and natural gas became the largest share of electric power generation in 2016.”

Bill Straub

That “less economically competitive” source? Care to take a guess?

EIA estimates that coal production fell by about 20 million short tons in 2018 despite a 19 million short tons increase in coal exports. Capuano said low natural gas prices “have primarily contributed to reduced demand for coal in the United States.”

“The electric power sector is projected to see a notable shift in fuel mix,” Capuano told the panel.

“Growth in solar, wind and natural gas-fired electricity generation is projected to be accompanied by additional retirements of coal and nuclear power plants. As a result of this changing fuel mix, the electric power sector is projected to see a steady decrease in carbon dioxide intensity after 2030.”

It’s worth noting this analysis comes from an official in the Trump administration, where the president could at one point often be heard singing himself hoarse promoting his love for beautiful, clean coal.

While natural gas now rests firmly in the catbird seat, renewables, which Trump continues to ridicule and dismiss, are on a roll. Overall, renewable sources provided 17 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2018. Hydro-electric, wind and solar power are on a glide path to surpass coal generation by 2025, according to EIA.

Meanwhile, 50 coal-powered electricity generating plants have closed nationwide since 2017 when Trump assumed office to a great fanfare of a coal revival. Since 2010, 289 have shuttered, plants that at one time equaled 40 percent of the nation’s coal power capacity. Only 241 such plants remain open.

It’s only going to get worse, or better, according to your perspective. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has adopted a regulation to eliminate coal burning within the state’s borders by next year – helping Gov. Andrew Cuomo keep a commitment. The reg is the first of its kind in the nation and other states are pondering the possibility. The removal of coal-fired power is a critical step for the state to reach its goal of a 100 percent greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the electric sector by 2040.

“Banning coal combats climate change and improves air quality for all New Yorkers,” said Patrick McClellan, State Policy Director of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “Coal power is an outdated technology that the world needs to rapidly stop using and we are excited that New York is leading the way.”

So it appears that Trump’s vow to halt the coal slide, like most of his boasts, is empty.

The president has declared on more than one occasion that “the coal industry is back.” But now it appears his confidence might be waning despite an occasional rhetorical flourish. In his January 2018 State of the Union address, the president declared, “We have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal” – a ridiculous claim in so many ways. But the subject didn’t even rate a mention in his 2019 speech.

In fact, it’s been quite a while since a real hosanna about coal has passed his lips. He has spoken about energy but of a different sort. This week he was in Hackberry, LA, for the opening of a liquified natural gas plant, which drew all sorts of praise. Coal was cited only in passing.

The White House issued an energy fact sheet on May 14 that featured Trump declaring, “The golden era of American energy is now underway.” But coal barely earned a mention – the document repeated the bogus claim that “President Trump ended the war on coal by getting rid of costly Obama-era regulations like the Stream Protection Rule and the Clean Power Plan.’’ And it mentioned the increase in coal exports. That was it. Nothing about coal’s vital role. It played third banana in the report to natural gas and oil.

Pretty soon, as is his wont, Trump will deny ever saying anything in praise of beautiful, clean coal.
In a sense, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of presidential spittle and bluster, coal as an energy source is doomed for economic, as well as environmental, reasons. Characterizing what has been going on as a War on Coal – a claim often voiced by Trump, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, other members of the Kentucky congressional delegation and various members of the Kentucky General Assembly — has always been rather silly.

But if there was such a war, coal lost. And the politicians offering empty promises about coal rising like a phoenix out of the Eastern Kentucky mountains are doing a terrible disservice to the economically desperate folks who live there.

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis notes that “new coal plants are far more expensive than other options.” Lakeland Electric, a utility in Lakeland, FL., found that replacing one of its coal units would cost at least three times as much as a new natural gas unit.

The organization firmly declared that various factors, not the War on Coal, are “pointing to momentum in the national shift in electricity generation that is leaving coal behind.”

Regardless, King Coal’s reign in the commonwealth is about over. Once the nation’s top producer, Kentucky fell to fifth in 2017, providing the nation with 5 percent of its coal. Only 6,569 people were employed in coal mining in the fourth quarter of 2018, the most recent statistics available. That about one-fifth of one percent of the state’s labor force.

It’s time to move on and the Trump administration apparently knows it, although it remains mum. Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited the Commonwealth, reportedly to take the temperature on plans to shift Eastern Kentucky’s reliance on coal to natural gas.

Even Trump, it seems, has figured things out.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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