Friday, August 14, 2015

Debunking five myths about the coal industry

Michael E. Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, co-director of the Austin Technology Incubator’s Clean Energy Incubator and an associate professor of mechanical engineering, likens the recent plight of the coal industry to that of the film character Rocky Balboa in an article for The Washington Post. Much like the embattled underdog Rocky—who lost his locker, access to the gym and struggled to make ends meet in a brutal unforgiving part of the city—coal can't catch a break. (Bloomberg photo by Luke Sharrett: coal mined from a Kentucky strip mine falls from a conveyor belt)

Coal—which still provides 29 percent of the world's energy—has been hit hard by the Obama Administration's Clean Power plan, "the pope’s moral pronouncements on climate change and the abundance of cheap natural gas," Webber writes. While coal advocates cite coal's value and critics the harm it causes, Webber said there are plenty of myths going around about the coal industry. Here, he hopes to debunk five of them.

Coal is dirty
While there's truth to all the images of "blighted landscapes, black lungs and smokestacks belching out toxic clouds that cause acid rain" they don't tell the whole story, Webber writes. "Starting about 150 years ago, coal performed a very important environmental service. Forests in the upper Midwest and the Northeast were being cut down rapidly as demand for firewood to heat homes and fuel factories outstripped the rate at which the trees grew back. Coal mines brought that rampant deforestation to a halt. The black rock was cheaper, hotter and more plentiful. It was also cleaner: Burning coal produces less carbon dioxide than burning wood, per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated."

Obama’s 'war on coal' is killing the mining industry
"While the Environmental Protection Agency’s smokestack emissions standards certainly aren’t helpful for coal, the rules have been around in some form for decades, and the first federal regulation to permanently cap and reduce coal plants’ mercury emissions was issued in 2005, during the George W. Bush administration," Webber writes. Cheap natural gas has been much more damaging for coal’s market share than environmental rules. . . . Any way you slice it, domestic coal producers have a tough road ahead, whether Obama is president or not."

Appalachia depends on coal, and coal depends on Appalachia
"Coal mining is not particularly lucrative for Appalachia," Webber writes. "While mine owners are often very rich, and the cheap electricity coal produces is a great economic enabler nationwide, Appalachia’s mining towns have been among the poorest in the nation. They have suffered from a lack of economic diversity, making them susceptible to coal’s boom-and-bust cycles. Coal doesn’t have the same economic hold on the Appalachian states that it used to, and Appalachia doesn’t have the same hold on coal."

Coal is unsubsidized 
"While renewable-energy tax credits are direct subsidies and therefore easy targets, the subsidies for coal are less obvious," Webber writes. "They pay to support research and development and to lower tax liabilities for coal companies. Plus, the decade-long prohibition on new natural-gas power plants beginning in 1978 effectively subsidized the construction of coal plants by removing natural gas as a competitor."

China is addicted to coal 
"Beijing is shutting down all of its major coal-fired power plants, and nearly 2,000 small coal mines are slated to be closed nationwide by the end of this year," Webber writes. "In an ironic twist, Chinese coal has even lowered the price of wind turbines and solar panels, which are produced in factories powered by cheap, coal-fired electricity. Crippling air pollution kills at least 1 million people in China prematurely each year, a dire situation that required action from government officials. Consequently, solar and wind farms have been built at a staggering rate to combat pollution, cutting into the market share for coal and leading to declining coal consumption over the past year." (Read more)

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