I have to admit that the first thing I thought of when I saw the social media postings about the Politico piece, “Inside the war on coal,” was: Why did a reporter as good as Michael Grunwald fall into the trap of calling something a “war” that simply isn’t a war. But perhaps I just need to accept the fact that the industry PR people who thought up the phrase earned their money and, despite my best efforts on this blog (see War is war: Why not call coal debate something else?), nobody else is going to start calling what’s happening to coal something else.
As I read on through this piece, though, there is much that folks in places like the coalfields of West Virginia should read. Mike nails a lot of this, as he very often does:
Coal still helps keep our lights on, generating nearly 40 percent of U.S. power. But it generated more than 50 percent just over a decade ago, and the big question now is how rapidly its decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar … Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.
This is a big deal, because coal is America’s top source of greenhouse gases, and coal retirements are the main reason U.S. carbon emissions have declined 10 percent in a decade.
But, a significant strength of this piece is that it doesn’t, as much journalism on these topics does today, pretend that far-off global concerns about climate change are the only downside to coal:
Coal is also America’s top source of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other toxic air pollutants, so fewer coal plants also means less asthma and lung disease—not to mention fewer coal-ash spills and coal-mining disasters.
And, he notes something that I’ve written about many times before — that President Obama has not always been nearly as tough on coal as industry mouthpieces would have us all believe. There are also just tons of really interesting details about the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” efforts to shut down power plants around the country. For example:
At a dry hearing in a drab courtroom in Oklahoma City, a methodical Beyond Coal attorney named Kristin Henry, whose bio identifies her as “one of the few environmentalists who would never be caught wearing Birkenstocks,” was pinning down an Oklahoma Gas & Electric executive with a barrage of wouldn’t-you-agrees, isn’t-it-trues, and would-it-be-fair-to-say’s. The power company was out of compliance with a federal air-quality rule called “regional haze,” so it was offering to convert one of its two coal plants into a natural gas plant. Henry knew she couldn’t stop that. But OG&E also wanted to install massive new scrubbers on the other plant so it could keep burning coal for decades to come. Henry was determined to stop that.
In the 90 minutes Henry spent cross-examining OG&E’s Joseph Rowlett in early March, she didn’t ask a single question about climate or public health. She focused exclusively on OG&E’s request for the largest rate increase in state history, a 15 percent hike to finance the utility’s $700 million compliance plan. Through her deadpan, leading questions, she portrayed OG&E as a company desperate to get its customers to foot the bill to prop up an inefficient plant, pursuing retrofits it would never consider if its own shareholders had to swallow the costs, operating in a dream world where regional haze was coal’s only challenge. At one point, she got Rowlett to admit his calculations assumed there would be no additional coal regulations for the next thirty years, even though the EPA intends to finalize at least four new coal regulations this year alone.
“Isn’t it true you’re assuming zero over the next 30 years?” Henry asked.
Rowlett paused a few seconds. “That’s right,” he replied.
In this June 2, 2014, file photo, a coal train stops near White Bluff power plant near Redfield, Ark. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and state Public Service Commission called a meeting Wednesday, June 25, 2014, to discuss coming rules being imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)
Overall, this is a very strong piece, obviously. Michael Grunwald doesn’t need me to say that. But at the same time, I wonder if he’s giving the Sierra Club just a tiny bit more credit than they deserve. What do I mean by that? Well, he explains clearly that in this particular “war,” the Sierra Club “usually wins by arguing that ditching coal will save ratepayers money.” He goes on:
Behind that argument lies a revolution in the economics of power, changes few Americans think about when they flick their switches. Coal used to be the cheapest form of electricity by far, but it’s gotten pricier as it’s been forced to clean up more of its mess, while the costs of gas, wind and solar have plunged in recent years. Now retrofitting old coal plants with the pollution controls needed to comply with Obama’s limits on soot, sulfur and mercury is becoming cost-prohibitive—and the EPA is finalizing its new carbon rules as well as tougher ozone restrictions that should add to the burden. That’s why the Sierra Club finds itself in foxholes with big-box stores, manufacturers and other business interests, fighting coal upgrades that would jack up electricity bills, pushing for cheaper renewables and energy efficiency instead.
What I wonder is if Mike doesn’t have this just a little backward in at least one way. The economics that are costing coal its market share are the result of a variety of things, perhaps most predominantly the boom in natural gas drilling and production. His story has this helpful disclaimer:
The Sierra Club can’t claim full credit for the coal bust. It didn’t ratchet down the prices of gas, wind and solar or enact the flurry of EPA rules ratcheting up the price of coal, although its lobbyists and lawyers have pushed hard for government support for renewables while fighting in court over just about every coal-related regulation. It didn’t produce the energy efficiency boom that has reined in electricity demand, either.
The Sierra Club didn’t make these economics happen. It just took advantage of them, and drove the point home in case after case after case. It would have been helpful if that were explained further up in Mike’s story. Why? Because the way the story is framed, it’s all too easy for coal industry officials and coalfield politicians to point at it and say, “See, war on coal. Sierra Club” and ignore all of the other realities now being confronted by coal and the communities where it is mined.
Of course, it’s not Mike’s job to frame his stories in a way that will help West Virginians understand those realities. And it’s not like West Virginians haven’t had opportunities to see the economics that the Sierra Club’s campaign has seized upon. Sierra Club lawyers and experts tried to make their point during the state Public Service Commission cases over the transfers of major coal-fired power plants by American Electric Power and FirstEnergy to their West Virginia-based subsidiaries. PSC officials weren’t much interested in listening (see here and here). And just yesterday, we saw some of the result, with rate hike the PSC approved for Appalachian Power customers.
Other Sierra Club efforts in West Virginia have been more successful. Most notable is the group’s involvement, with Appalachian Mountain Advocates and others, in water quality lawsuits that, among other things, forced Patriot Coal to agree to phase out its use of mountaintop removal coal mining.
Something that’s pretty important for West Virginians to see in Mike’s piece is that some of the soundbites that make up the constant refrain against EPA’s efforts on climate change just don’t add up to much truth. For example:
As the affordability case for coal has lost traction, the industry’s defenders have portrayed the war on coal as a war on reliability, an assault on 24-hour “baseload” plants that provide juice when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing … In fact, neither the decline of coal, nor the boom in renewables has blacked out the grid, and Beyond Coal’s leaders are confident electricity markets can handle much more intermittent power.
And conspicuously absent from the story is much of the hand-wringing about the negative impacts of EPA actions on coalfield jobs that understandably gets attention from many in the media. The piece does note:
The campaign’s leaders believe coal has already passed a tipping point toward oblivion. Coal giants like Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Walter Energy are struggling to stay afloat.
But that’s it. Energy markets, media outlets, environmental groups … they’re all moving on. The message here for coalfield leaders ought to be similar to the one I suggested following a piece last year by David Roberts (then with Grist, now at Vox.com). The troubles of coalfield communities aren’t the top priority for many people in other parts of the nation or the world. They aren’t the priority for groups like the Sierra Club or media outlets like Politico. If coalfield communities are going to survive the energy transformation that’s happening, they’re going to have to take the lead themselves.