Coal Tattoo

West Virginia political leaders and media personalities don’t much like it when some uncomfortable facts get interjected into their “war on coal” narrative about the Obama administration and the efforts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce coal’s impacts on the environment, public health, and the global climate.

Hoppy Kercheval over at West Virginia MetroNews was reduced to babbling about “environmental extremist acolytes”  in a commentary in which he tried almost desperately to avoid talking about how the Obama administration’s crackdown on mountaintop removal hadn’t brought the coal industry crashing down after all — that the number of coal miners working in West Virginia has actually increased since President Obama took office. Hoppy made brief mention that “some in the anti-coal crowd” are pointing to these facts, but he couldn’t be bothered to actually give readers of his commentary the actual figures.

I doubt anyone really expects much discussion of these positive employment figures during the series of taxpayer-funded meetings the Coal Forum is hosting starting tomorrow here in Charleston to provide the industry a forum to attack President Obama.  Industry officials and their political allies are likely to talk more about the layoffs that have been announced in the coal industry so far this calendar year. By my quick count, those layoffs confirmed as occurring in West Virginia add up to roughly 600 workers. Even if you account for those layoffs, though, coal employment remains above pre-Obama levels. Some companies have announced larger figures for their layoffs, but haven’t specified how many job losses occurred in West Virginia (see here and here).  Even if all of those jobs losses were counted, total coal-mining employment in West Virginia still increased for nine straight quarters, through the first quarter of 2012 (See comments section below).

What you can expect to hear about is a fairly recent report issued by Bloomberg Government, “The Twilight of Coal-Fired Power? The EPA’s New Standards for Greenhouse Gases.” The Coal Forum has promoted the report on its website, and copies are being distributed to the local media. The Coal Forum’s site listed these three conclusions, quoted word-for-word from the Bloomberg report:

• New coal plants would effectively be banned because their emission rate is almost double that of the proposed standard.

• The new policy probably wouldn’t shift current investment patterns in the power sector. Natural-gas plants already have a compelling price advantage.

• Although the rule makes room to build coal plants that incorporate carbon capture and storage technology, coal plants with CCS probably won’t be built unless Congress enacts new programs to subsidize them.

Wait a second … did I read that right? Here’s that second conclusion again:

The new policy probably wouldn’t shift current investment patterns in the power sector. Natural-gas plants already have a compelling price advantage.

Now, report author and economist Rob Barnett did say this in one recent story about his analysis:

“I think coal is at a very low place right now,” Barnett said in an interview, noting that coal has lost about 10 percent of its market share for electricity generation as more utilities convert their plants to burn natural gas.

But Barnett also said:

Barnett said he does not expect coal to “fall off a cliff” due to the new EPA rule on greenhouse gas emissions, but that it will remain in utilities’ fuel mix for the next 25 to 30 years.

In his report, Barnett explained that a move away from coal-fired power isn’t something happening because of EPA, but is really part of “business as usual” in the electricity sector:

Banning the construction of new coal-fired power plants isn’t really a departure from business as usual. It’s akin to banning cars that fly: While there may be a market for flying cars in the future, there won’t be one anytime soon. The same goes for coal power: Things may change in the future, but based on current fuel prices, there are few companies seriously mulling the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the U.S.

Coal really hasn’t been the fuel of choice in the power sector for some time. The average U.S. coal-fired power plant is 38 years old, and a majority of plants were built before 1980. Since 1990, coal has been the fuel of choice in just 6 percent of new power plants, while natural gas has powered 77 percent of the additions.

To emphasize his point, the report adds in its conclusion:

Whether the EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas emissions standard eventually becomes U.S. law is a moot point in many ways. Natural gas is already the fuel of choice in the power sector, and increased use of natural gas is already putting downward pressure on power-related GHG emissions.