Debating coal: What gets left out of the discussion

October 17, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speak during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Well, last night’s presidential debate certainly brought more fireworks over energy policy and the coal industry than the previous meeting two weeks ago between President Obama and Republican nominee Gov. Mitt Romney.

But basically, it mostly turned into a contest over which candidate was willing to promise to drill for more oil and gas and mine more coal.   While there’s certainly room to criticize moderator Candy Crowley for not asking a question about global warming, it’s also obvious that the extended discussion of energy policy (read the transcript here) was a perfect chance for either candidate to bring up the issue and, if nothing else, assert that they think it’s important.

Nobody really expects that from Gov. Romney, but you have to wonder why President Obama couldn’t manage even one sentence in there somewhere — I mean, this is a president whose November 2008 victory speech listed a “planet in peril” as a priority right up there with “two wars” and “the worst financial crisis in a century.”

Another striking thing, though is how easily the media — in this case the moderator — and the candidates themselves have pivoted the entire discussion away from the sorts of things we were talking about not so long ago. It reminded me of a March 2011 New York Times story that noted:

Three of the world’s chief sources of large-scale energy production — coal, oil and nuclear power — have all experienced eye-popping accidents in just the past year. The Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia, the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan have dramatized the dangers of conventional power generation at a time when the world has no workable alternatives able to operate at sufficient scale.

Now, first, there are some assumptions packed into that part about “no workable alternatives able to operate at sufficient scale” that we should be careful about. There’s plenty of scientific evidence that alternatives are available in a much shorter time frame than politicians in places like West Virginia would have us believe (see here, here and here).

But my real point is that the question as asked, moderated, and answered assumed that the best candidate is the one who will — all other issues and concerns aside — drill or mine the most fossil fuels. I mean, gosh, here we had President Obama stooping in person in a nationally televised debate to the sort of pandering that his campaign has been doing regarding coal-fired power plants:

And when I hear Governor Romney say he’s a big coal guy — and keep in mind when — Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, this plant kills, and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal.

One more time for the record: Pollution from coal-fired power plants does kill people.

The president went on to say, “So what I’ve tried to do is be consistent,” and then actually was anything but when he added:

With respect to something like coal, we made the largest investment in clean coal technology to make sure that even as we’re producing more coal, we’re producing it cleaner and smarter.

What’s so consistent about saying, on the one hand, that Gov. Romney was wrong to criticize power plant pollution as dangerous, but then, on the other hand, brag about spending lots of public money on “clean coal technology.” If power plant emissions aren’t harmful, why do we need to clean them up?

President Barack Obama, right, listens as Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answers a question from a member of the audience during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012 in Hempstead, N.Y.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

There’s lot of other “fact-checking” going on out there (see here, here and here for example), but a few coal-related things I thought worth mentioning:

— President Obama said last night, “We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment.” True? Well, coal production nationwide last year was down about 6 percent over the last year of the Bush administration.  But the 2008 year was an all-time record, with 1.171 billion tons. Production dropped off the following year, as the economic downturn hit, but it’s increased again in 2010 and 2011. As for jobs, nationwide coal jobs during the 2nd quarter of 2012 — the most recent data available from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration — showed 91,110 jobs nationwide, an increase over 89,854 during the last quarter of the Bush administration. Even the National Mining Association has touted the increase in jobs during the first three years of the Obama administration, though as coalfield families know, there’s been a long line of layoffs announced this year here in Appalachia. Regarding federal land coal-mining, by the way, production was down only slightly last year out in Wyoming, and employment was actually up a little bit.

— Gov. Romney said, “When the president ran for office, he said, if you build a coal plant, you can go ahead, but you’ll go bankrupt.” As we’ve explained many times before (see here for example), this is a continued effort by the Romney campaign (and the coal industry’s PR effort) to take wildly out of context what the president said about how a cap-and-trade policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would work.

— Gov. Romney said, “And coal — coal production is not up, coal jobs are not up. I was just at a coal facility where some 1,200 people lost their jobs.” Where did the 1,200 figure come from? Gov. Romney didn’t say. But perhaps he was talking about his visit last week to southwestern Virginia, where he was introduced at a campaign rally by Alpha Natural Resources CEO Kevin Crutchfield. Romney’s campaign has previously made note of Alpha’s announcement that it was cutting 1,200 positions by the end of the first quarter of 2013. Obviously, Romney was wrong to describe this as a single facility, when it’s a variety of individual mines. And as we’ve reported before, it’s not clear how many people will actually be put out of work as a result of this, and how many will find other positions within Alpha.

More importantly on that issue of job losses, neither candidate really talked about what is really driving the coal industry’s decline, especially in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia: Low natural gas prices, competition from other coal basins, and — as we explained in a lengthy Sunday story this week — the mining out of much of the region’s best and easiest-to-reach coal reserves.

So not only does President Obama decline to defend his administration’s policies aimed at reducing coal’s impacts on the environment, public health and worker safety, but he tries to outdo Gov. Romney in arguing in favor of an industry that is clearly on the decline.  As I wrote in my recent piece for The Nation magazine:

From the presidential race to heated battles for statewide and local legislative offices, talk of Obama’s “war on coal” still sucks all the oxygen out of every room and dominates most campaign ads. No one wants to consider anything else, and they most certainly don’t want to hear talk about what might come next.

2 Responses to “Debating coal: What gets left out of the discussion”

  1. Mike H says:

    “Now, first, there are some assumptions packed into that part about “no workable alternatives able to operate at sufficient scale” that we should be careful about. There’s plenty of scientific evidence that alternatives are available in a much shorter time frame than politicians in places like West Virginia would have us believe (see here, here and here).”

    Two reports hardly qualifies as “plenty” of evidence when making a determination (the NREL report was much more cautious) to pour trillions of dollars into our energy sector and completely reengineer it from generation all the way through usage. But why do we need to rely on these studies at all … we have a current real world examples of high renewable penetration and what it means for a nation’s energy security, reliability and ultimately its quality of life.

    “Filling the void left by fossil fuels and nuclear power however has already placed a strain on existing capacity in the national grid. During a cold snap in February last year the pressure on electricity capacity in the Hamburg region pushed the grid to breaking point and forced some heavy industry plants to shut down. Despite significant investment in wind and solar power Germany still faces an energy shortfall, and is also hamstrung by a lack of north-south power lines shifting electricity generated in North Sea wind farms to the industrial centres in the south. The shift to renewable energy is also taking a toll on family budgets. On Monday Germany’s electrical grid operators announced that a special tax levied on consumers to finance subsidies for green energy would increase by almost 50 per cent.”

    Texas, a model of wind power’s potential, now is a model of wind power’s pitfalls too. Minders of the Lone Star State’s electricity grid had to cut power to some offices and factories Wednesday evening when the wind dropped—and with it, electricity produced from the state’s many wind farms. The green juice slowed from 1,700 megawatts to the trickle of 300 megawatts.

    You continue to stress, correctly I might add, that there are several factors leading to coals decline in Appalachia: cost of natural gas, low electrical demand and higher cost for remaining coal deposits in Appalachia. My problem with your reporting is that you ignore or deny that the increased cost of regulation placed on coal plants is forcing many coal fired units to close, and this is not an insignificant factor in the rapidly declining fortunes of Appalachian coal producers. Transportation costs are one of the largest factors in determining where coal is produced and consumed. While nearly every plant in the US burns a blend of coals, the majority of the coal they burn comes from local sources. Remove the consumer and you deprive the producer of its customers.

    “Coal and electric utilities, long allied, are beginning to split. More than 100 of the 500 or so coal-burning power plants in the United States are expected to be shut down in the next few years. While coal still provides about a third of the nation’s power, just four years ago it was providing nearly half. The decline is largely because new pollution rules have made coal plants more costly, while a surge in production of natural gas through the process of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, has sent gas prices plummeting. Together, the economics of coal have been transformed after a century of dominance in Washington, state capitals and the board rooms of electric utilities.”

    “Chris Lacy, 41, an executive at Licking River Resources Inc., said layoffs among his 350 miners — in Magoffin County, where unemployment is already 17.5 percent — are inevitable if the coal furnaces at Big Sandy go cold. Even the garden supply company that Mr. Lacy’s father-in-law owns and where his two sons work indirectly relies on Big Sandy, because mines are required to plant grass over the scarred earth they leave behind. “It is the ripple effect that comes right through us,” Mr. Lacy said.”

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Mike H,

    Thanks for your comment and your links …

    First, a question: How many studies examining renewables would be sufficient for you to consider there might be something to that argument?

    Second, regarding the various factors affecting Appalachian coal, there have been efforts to tease out which impacts are bigger and smaller, to consider what is really driving this decline … One was a recent study by Resources for the Future (cited in this blog post and recently published in a peer-reviewed journal, ) … To quote:

    “Looking forward into the future, RFF researchers find in a recent paper that reductions in expected future natural gas prices result in a ten percent reduction in electricity generation from coal through 2020. Moreover, this market-driven decline in coal is 5 or 6 times greater than the drop in coal use that is likely to be attributable to new EPA air regulations such as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, also known as MATS (note that the Brattle study includes these regulations in its estimate).”

    And of course, there was an interesting piece out last month from SNL Financial, which reported:

    Calling the uncertain future of Central Appalachian coal mining the “elephant in the room,” industry consultant Alan Stagg said he expects mining in the high-cost region to cease in the next 10 to 20 years.

    Speaking at Platts Coal Marketing Days on Sept. 21, Stagg said producers in Central Appalachia need to accept that difficult physical mining conditions, combined with inescapable regulatory restrictions, will soon erase profitability.

    “This is the elephant in the room. No one wants to acknowledge that reserve depletion is profound,” said Stagg, president and CEO of Stagg Resource Consultants Inc. “Mining conditions are difficult, and the cost to produce is high. That is a physical fact. It’s not pleasant. Nobody wants to acknowledge it. That is a fact, and companies that ignore that fact will not do so well.”


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