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Tyrannosaurus Triceratops Charles KnightA dinosaur backed into a corner by a pack of smaller dinosaurs may be mortally wounded, but it's big and angry enough to do some serious damage in its death throes. The coal industry, long accustomed to being the Tyrannosaurus Rex of American politics, is on the ropes, battered by forces outside its control, but angry enough to damage people while it searches for an escape route.

Long term use of coal in the US is declining: “The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is forecast to fall below 40% for the year, its lowest level since World War II. Four years ago, it was 50%. By the end of this decade, it is likely to be near 30%.”

Coal’s decline is widely attributed to three reasons, which I’ve cleverly named EPA - Environmental Protection Agency, Price, Activists. One is far less important than the other two.

Congressional Republicans blame the EPA, but every time I've looked at "EPA regulations force this coal plant shutdown" cries, I've found a decrepit old plant shut down most months because maintenance costs are too high. EPA regulations are a relatively minor factor in coal plant shutdowns.

Most business analysts attribute coal’s fall to price. Coal’s price in the United States has stayed fairly stable, but prices of alternatives have plummeted. Natgas is at $2.50/MBTU - it was $9-10 during Bush years. Utilities are actively planning to replace older coal fired plants to natural gas. Things are so bad for Old King Coal that it’s fighting with two of its usual strong allies.

The electric utilities, formerly joined at the hip with coal, are now bailing on coal:

many now recognize that expending the political capital to fight for plants built in the middle of last century is not worth it -- especially when they can construct combined cycle natural gas facilities with relative regulatory ease while releasing roughly half of the emissions in the meantime.
A perfect storm is pulling the coal sector under: For example, “American Electric Power, meanwhile, has been one of the most vocal critics of EPA regs. But at the same time, it has admitted — according to Tierney’s paper — that its coal plants are running much less than intended because it is cheaper to operate the natural gas facilities.”

Today, Arch Coal announces layoffs of 750 employees, blaming "current market pressures and a challenging regulatory environment."

To top off matters, electric utilities and the coal barons are picking a fight with the railroads, normally the third member of their power-hungry pack, demanding that anti-trust exemptions be removed from railroads.

This will not end well for the tyrannosaurus, one hopes.

The business analysts don’t like to acknowledge the third reason why coal in the United States is decreasing: the activists. The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal program takes credit for shutting down 169 coal plants in the United States since Dick Cheney announced a need to build 200 more plants.  

coal chartIt's important to not let up the pressure to shut down coal plants wherever they may be proposed. Coal's market-force-led decline may change if the market for natural gas picks up and renewables haven't yet reached grid parity. The tyrannosaurus may be down, but it's already planning its next move - a bolt overseas, one that is being aided by Obama's massive expansion of the Powder River Basin and the six Pacific Northwest terminals on the drawing boards.

Act locally to fight coal. Some examples:

* in Asheville, North Carolina, tell Progress Energy to move beyond coal

* in Austin, Texas, attend a volunteer orientation June 30

* if you care about clean air in the national parks, tell the EPA you want strong haze protection.

And while fighting coal, remember the alternative: the sun and wind, both of which have been around longer than the dinosaurs.

Originally posted to Climate Hawks on Thu Jun 21, 2012 at 03:38 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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