Coal decline: Don’t be confused by new IEA report

December 19, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

This undated image provided by Ambre Energy shows coal mining equipment at work in the Decker coal mine located near Decker, Mont.  (AP Photo/Ambre Energy)

There seems to be some confusion out there about the future of the coal industry, based on this week’s report from the International Energy Agency, which told us:

Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to rise, and by 2017 coal will come close to surpassing oil as the world’s top energy source, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said today as it released its annual Medium-Term Coal Market Report (MCMR).

Some in the local media are saying this finding contradicts other reports about the decline of coal, citing specifically coverage of the IEA report by our friends over at National Public Radio. Indeed, NPR describing the IEA findings this way:

Despite a slowdown in U.S. consumption, coal is poised to replace oil as the world’s top energy source — possibly in the next five years, according to the International Energy Agency. The rise will be driven almost entirely by new energy demands in China and India, the IEA says.

That’s true as far as it goes. But perhaps NPR should have been more concerned about putting this IEA report in context than in touting the “findings” of one of its own journalistic efforts about the decline of coal in Texas. Because nowhere in the NPR account do they explain clearly what IEA says in the very first sentence of their press release: That this is a Medium-Term Coal Market Report. Readers of the Gazette and this blog know that just a month ago, IEA issued a longer-term examination of world energy markets that painted a different picture for coal — one in which coal production overall does continue to rise globally, but in which coal’s share of the total energy market continues to decline:

Fossil fuels remain the principal sources of energy worldwide, though renewables grow rapidly. Demand for oil, gas and coal grows in absolute terms through 2035, but their combined share of the global energy mix falls from 81% to 75% during that period. The unlocking of unconventional resources portends a very bright future for natural gas, which nearly overtakes coal in the primary energy supply mix by 2035 …

Coal remains the backbone of generation globally, particularly outside the OECD, but its share of the mix is eroded from two‐fifths to one‐third. In the OECD, coal‐based generation declines and is overtaken by gas and renewables by 2035.

In NPR’s defense, they weren’t the only media outlet that didn’t make clear the medium- and long-term trends from IEA. Others that didn’t included The Huffington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian.

Here in Appalachia, the confusion generated by this kind 0f press coverage is important. When policymakers like Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin can pretend that a coal decline isn’t happening — or that if it is happening it’s all because of President Obama and the EPA — they can avoid the sort of long-term economic diversification that’s needed here. The truth is that coal production from Central Appalachian is on the decline, and is projected to continue that decline, for reasons that have more to do with depleted reserves of easy-to-mine coal and cheap natural gas than anything the EPA is doing. While coal production globally is expected to rise, it’s hard to find anyone who thinks that much of that increase will be fed by mines in Central Appalachia.

Of course, the media coverage that failed to explain the scope of this particular IEA analysis did make an important point about how the continued reliance on coal (absent any focus on CCS) could impact the global climate. The Guardian, for example, noted:

With the highest carbon emissions of any major fossil fuel, coal is a huge contributor to climate change, particularly when burned in old-fashioned, inefficient power stations.

Local and international activists march inside a conferences center  to demand urgent action to address climate change at the U.N. climate talks in Doha, Qatar, Friday, Dec.7, 2012. A dispute over money clouded U.N. climate talks Friday, as rich and poor countries sparred over funds meant to help the developing world cover the rising costs of mitigating global warming and adapting to it. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal)

And the Huffington Post noted:

The IEA report comes against the backdrop of indecisive climate change talks in Doha, which closed earlier this month with little in the way of global agreement on cutting emissions. A raft of recent reports from a variety of organizations — including the United Nations, the World Bank and others — also suggest that the lack of action is making it exceedingly likely that global average temperatures will rise beyond levels that countries had previously agreed it would be best to avoid.

“This analysis underscores the need for a global movement to stop the madness of business as usual,” said Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for the climate-action group “Coal use can’t be like a bump in a rug, moving from one spot to another. The reality is that we need to keep 80 percent of all fossil fuels underground if we are going to avoid the worst impacts from climate change. And that can only happen if we work across borders in a unified front against the fossil fuel industry, whose business model is dependent on cooking the planet.”

IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven wrote, in a commentary issued with her agency’s report:

Amid mounting concerns about the impact of carbon dioxide emissions on Earth’s climate, the massive growth in coal use represents a troubling paradox. Whether the rise of CO2 emissions from coal continues will depend on the strength of policy measures that favour the deployment of more efficient coal-burning technologies and lower-emissions energy sources like renewables and natural gas.

To the degree that affordable coal has allowed hundreds of millions of people in emerging economies to enjoy the conveniences that the industrialized world began taking for granted long ago, its proliferation is a blessing. Yet for a society increasingly concerned about the amount of carbon it is sending into the atmosphere, the surge in coal burning is not good news. Despite industry’s effort to promote “clean” coal, the black matter remains the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. The average coal-based power plant emits a tonne of CO2 per MWh generated, about twice the level of a power plant using combined-cycle gas turbines.

Because of the rapid and continuing expansion of coal-fired generation in emerging economies, particularly in China and India, determined policy action will be needed to reverse the trend of the last decade.

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