The U.S. push for coal, at home and abroad

From ToxicLeaks

U.S. climate denial and coal[edit | edit source]

United States agencies under President Donald Trump’s leadership have turned away from climate priorities in an administration dominated by oil millionaires, pro-business executives and appointees who craft legislation to protect them. Discussions of climate change and the science behind it have quietly disappeared from government websites, or academic research funded with government sources.

It’s not true, though, that all U.S. agencies are denying the reality of climate change and the impact of carbon emissions on a sustainable future. At the Department of Energy (DOE), inexplicably enough, the U.S. champions the power of fossil fuels to solve an existential climate crisis. “To fight climate change, the Energy Department supports research and innovation that makes fossil energy technologies cleaner and less harmful to the people and the environment,” the site explains. The promotion of fossil fuels has been a recurring theme at home and abroad, and at their core are policies that focus on America’s coal.

Cooling down renewables at home[edit | edit source]

Recent projections from the U.S. Energy Information Agency show 31 percent of electricity generated by U.S. utility plants in 2017 was fueled by coal, along with 31 percent that’s generated using natural gas. Nuclear sources support almost 20 percent of U.S. electrical power, while renewable sources other than hydropower account for just 9 percent. By comparison, Germany generated 35 percent of its power through renewable sources in the first half of 2017, and coal-driven China is on pace to have 15 percent of its energy sourced from renewables by 2020. Yet even modest gains in the U.S. – and those advanced by local governments and a private sector in conflict with the federal government – face new challenges.

Coal production was up 10 percent through October 2017 as the Trump administration presses for policy changes it promises will jumpstart the coal-sector economy. Electrical power generation accounts for all but 7 percent of U.S. coal usage, which still continues to show an overall modest downward trend: It was down 9 percent compared with 2015. Yet that’s likely to change if Trump, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and the administration eliminate Clean Air Plan provisions and axe the tax breaks for renewable energy.

Perry has asked the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to subsidize coal-fired utilities, as well as nuclear sources, by setting prices at higher levels than market rate – and shamelessly passing the costs on to consumers who might otherwise buy cleaner energy from alternative sources at a lower price. It’s a move to slow the trend in closures of coal-fired facilities. Yet the single greatest driver putting old coal plants out of business was actually the rise in natural gas sources, according to his own department’s August 2017 study. Demand has flattened, as energy efficiency and innovation have evolved. Compliance with regulatory provisions has contributed to the closure of coal-fired utilities, and some nuclear plants bound to safe water standards, but that’s no reason to lower the CO2 emissions expectations as the world, except for the U.S., gears up for a unified fight to save a sustainable future.

Perry’s plan, which would add an estimated USD$11 billion to the cost of electricity with no benefit to consumers and increased damage to the environment, rewards only coal and nuclear facilities since a 90-day storage rule to protect capacity would leave them the only ones qualified for subsidized pricing. The DOE proposal before FERC is such a radical departure that even the oil and gas industry opposes it, and the new FERC head called for a 30-day extension beyond a December 11 deadline for a decision.

There are other threats beyond the end-run around the market. Trump’s proposed tax cuts, which ironically benefit corporate America to the exclusion of nearly anyone else, pose a threat to solar and wind development by increasing debt costs, lowering depreciation for developers and reducing tax equity financing. Environmental Protection Agency chief and climate skeptic Scott Pruitt says he wants to eliminate clean-energy tax credits, despite related jobs and benefits in his own state of Oklahoma.

Yet as attorney-general there, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times in attempts to defeat former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. In October 2017, Pruitt traveled to U.S. coal country to announce his intent to repeal the plan meant to reduce climate-threatening emissions. The plan’s status remains on hold following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, with public input and comment held until January 16, 2018. Pruitt made clear in a December 7, 2017 hearing that Trump’s EPA is working on a replacement plan.

Promoting coal at COP23[edit | edit source]

On June 1, 2017, the U.S. president announced the country was leaving the global Paris Agreement, the fully ratified United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) document that unites the rest of the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting climate resources, planning for climate resilience and financing the necessary transition, particularly for the least developed countries.

The U.S. is now the only nation refusing to honor the agreement, but it didn’t stop U.S. representatives from attending the Conference of the Parties 23 meeting in Bonn, Germany to promote coal. The panel of government and industry leaders at the November 2017 meeting promoted coal, along with natural gas and nuclear power, as vital to energy security and economic development. The presence of a coal executive from coal giant Peabody Energy, other fossil fuel and nuclear advocates, and a Trump advisor was met with widespread condemnation and ridicule from the international community – some of whom wanted the U.S. removed from the talks – as well as American elected officials and delegates.

“Without question, fossil fuels will continue to be used, and we would argue that it’s in the global interest to make sure when fossil fuels are used that they be as clean and efficient as possible,” said George Banks, the Trump advisor. He was countered with a widely circulated statement from former New York City mayor and climate activist Michael Bloomberg, who said, "Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.” At least two American legislators, leaders from 20 states and 50 cities, and 1,400 U.S. businesses aligned with California Gov. Jerry Brown decried the coal promotion and vowed to fight for renewable energy and continued commitment to the agreement.

Some 15 nations joined an alliance against coal use at Bonn. The Powering Past Coal alliance, launched by U.S. allies including Canada and the UK, also counted France, Mexico and Ethiopia within its ranks.

Promoting coal in Africa[edit | edit source]

If the U.S. debacle over coal at Bonn wasn’t enough to prove the Trump administration’s disregard for the international effort on climate change, DOE Secretary Rick Perry’s October 2017 visit to the African continent added to the conflict over coal. Perry was a keynote speaker at Africa Oil Week, attended by energy ministers, senior officials and business leaders from across the continent. His talk promoted fossil fuel energy, and he said it was time to break the global “culture of shame” around their use. On a continent already experiencing the challenges of climate change – and poised to bear the brunt of the damaging impacts of fossil fuels – Perry championed their use and called for partnerships with the U.S.

"That's my message to Africa. America is truly your friend and your partner,” Perry said. “And we're here to help Africa use fossil fuels and use them cleanly with the world's newest and best technology."

Current state of coal worldwide[edit | edit source]

There’s no question that the need to power up Africa and the rest of the developing world is critical to a sustainable future, but the Trump administration’s positions on coal fly in the face of the most recent guidance from the International Energy Agency. The November 14, 2017 report sees a 30 percent rise in global energy demand between now and 2040, described as the sobering equivalent of adding another China and India to today’s demand – most of it in Asia, the Middle East and across the African nations.

“Renewables step up, coal strikes out,” is what the IEA report says. “Renewable sources of energy meet 40 percent of the increase in primary demand and their explosive growth in the power sector marks the end of the boom years for coal,” the IEA explains. In the EU, renewables account for 80 percent of all new capacity. India, the biggest demand driver, sees its coal reliance drop below half by 2040. Brazil’s use of renewable energy reaches 45 percent in 2040. China’s coal use peaked in 2013 and now declines.

The era of coal is over, and that’s imperative if the world hopes to achieve sustainability goals and greenhouse gas emissions targets before it’s too late. Clinging to coal in the U.S. won’t work, and neither is a Trump administration that is reversing the progress made on climate change and ending fossil fuels.