Cheap, abundant coal is key to national security, warm homes and wintertime survival
By Tom Harris
Recent record-setting low temperatures have underscored the creature comfort and often life-saving importance of abundant, reliable, affordable energy. They also reminded us how appropriate it was that America’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) emphasizes energy security – and was released on December 18, three days before this extra chilly winter officially began.
This first Trump Administration NSS identifies four vital national interests. Two of them – “promoting American prosperity” and “advancing American influence” – require that the United States “take advantage of our wealth in domestic resources.” However, America is no longer taking full advantage of one of its most important of its domestic resources: its vast coal reserves, the largest of any nation on Earth.
Testifying November 28 in Charleston, West Virginia, at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) public hearing on repealing the Clean Power Plan, Robert E. Murray, president and CEO of Murray Energy Corp., summarized the bleak state of affairs.
“Prior to the election of President Obama,” Murray noted, “52% of America’s electricity was generated from coal, and this rate was much higher in the Midwest. That percentage of coal generation declined under the Obama Administration to 30%. Under the Obama Administration, and its so-called Clean Power Plan, over 400 coal-fired generating plants totaling over 100,000 megawatts of capacity were closed, with no proven environmental benefit whatsoever.”
Much of this was driven by Obama’s determination to be seen as contributing to “arresting climate change,” to quote from his 2015 NSS, by mandating severe reductions ofcarbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants. Unbelievably, this NSS listed “climate change” ahead of “major energy market disruptions” in its list of “top strategic risks to our interests.”
That made no sense. Climate is, and always will be, variable. There is nothing we can do to stop it. And many scientists do not support the hypothesis that our CO2 emissions will cause dangerous climate change.
Regardless, recent climate change has been unremarkable. It is certainly not “unprecedented,” and it clearly does not constitute a national security threat by comparison to a lack of affordable, reliable energy to power the nation and its military, and export to world markets. President Donald Trump was right to make only passing reference to climate change in the 2017 NSS.
Even in the unlikely event that CO2 emissions were or became a problem, developing countries are the source of most of the world’s emissions, and China alone currently emits about twice as much the USA. Those nations are not about to follow Obama’s lead. They understand that they must continue building coal-fired power plants at an aggressive pace, to meet their growing electricity needs.
Even the New York Times admitted that “As Beijing joins climate fight, Chinese companies build coal plants” (July 1, 2017).
“Chinese corporations are building or planning to build more than 700 new coal plants at home and around the world, some in countries that today burn little or no coal,according to tallies compiled by Urgewald, an environmental group based in Berlin…. Overall, 1,600 coal plants are planned or under construction in 62 countries, according to Urgewald’s tally, which uses data from the Global Coal Plant Tracker portal. The new plants would expand the world’s coal-fired power capacity by 43 percent.”
Similarly, India’s heavy reliance on coal will continue even in 2047, according to the June 16, 2017 report “Energizing India,” by the National Institute for Transforming India (NTTI) and Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ). Coal is forecast to rise from its 2012 46% of India’s total energy mix to 50% in 2047 in the “business as usual scenario.” Even in an “ambitious” scenario in which renewables supply 12% of India’s primary energy (in 2012 it was 3%), coal still accounts for 42% of India’s energy mix.
The authors of the NTTI/IEEJ report state, “India would like to use its abundant coal reserves as it provides a cheap source of energy and ensures energy security as well.” Simply put, coal is essential if the rest of India’s population is to gain access to electricity and rise up out of abject poverty. Even today, some 240 million Indians (nearly seven times the population of Canada!) still do not have electricity.
India and these analysts are right, of course. So it is a welcome development that Trump is promoting a resurgence of the American coal industry.
Obama’s dedication to the climate scare contributed significantly to coal’s tragic decline in America. Besides the impact of his Clean Power Plan, a rule that will hopefully be withdrawn very soon, coal has been hammered as a result of a 2015 EPA rule that limits plant-fertilizing carbon dioxide emissions from new coal-fired power stations. The result is that the U.S. can no longer build modern, clean, efficient coal plants to replace older stations, as is happening in China, India and even Europe. Here’s why:
The 2015 EPA rule, titled “Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions From New, Modified, and Reconstructed Stationary Sources: Electric Generating Units,” limits CO2 emissions on new coal-fired stations to 1,400 pounds per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. When releasing the new standard, the EPA asserted that it “is the performance achievable by a [supercritical pulverized coal] unit capturing about 20 percent of its carbon pollution.” This is irrational.
CO2 is no more pollution than is water vapour, the major greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere. By calling the gas “carbon,” the Obama EPA deliberately and falsely encouraged the public to think of it as something dirty, like graphite and soot, which really are carbon. Calling CO2 by its proper name, carbon dioxide, would have helped people remember that it is an invisible, odourless gas that we exhale and is essential to plant photosynthesis. Mr. Obama apparently did not want people to remember that.
Moreover, the technology of CO2 capture on a full-scale power plant is still a technological fantasy. So in reality, the EPA was actually banning even the most modern, most efficient, least polluting, supercritical coal-fired stations – because even their CO2 emissions are at least 20% above the arbitrary EPA limit.
Speaking at the November 9, 2017 America First Energy Conference in Houston, Texas, keynote speaker Joe Leimkuhler, vice president of drilling for Louisiana-based LLOG Exploration, showed that America has 22.1% of the world’s proven coal reserves, more than any other country, and enough to last for 381 years at current consumption rates.
So it is a tragedy that America can no longer build modern coal-fired power stations to replace its aging fleet. Clearly, the rule limiting CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power stations must be cancelled as soon as possible.
The climate scare has also impeded coal’s development in the USA by restricting its export. In particular, Asia would be a huge market for inexpensive American coal if sufficient U.S. export facilities were available. But, again, thanks largely to the climate scare contributing to the blocking of construction of coal export terminals, America exports only about as much coal as does Poland.
To ensure energy security, especially when demand soars during bitterly cold spells and heat waves, and to “restore America’s advantages in the world and build upon our country’s great strengths” (quoting from the NSS fact sheets), the U.S. must expand its fleet of coal-fired power stations and build coal export facilities as quickly as possible. To make that possible, the Trump administration must do everything in its power to thoroughly debunk the climate alarm that has so crippled coal’s development.
Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition. He writes from Ontario, a province that seriously damaged its economy by banning all coal-fired power generation.