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Coal industry executives, their friends at Fox News, and politicians trolling for votes in coal country are up in arms about what they are calling “the war on coal.” The “war” consists of EPA regulations affecting both the oldest coal-burning electric generation plants and ones not yet built. Under the first set of rules, the aging dinosaurs in the coal fleet—those grandfathered in under the original Clean Air Act in the 1970s--will finally have to meet modern-day pollution standards for mercury and smog-forming chemicals, so they kill fewer people. These plants have all outlived their 30-year design life, and many of them are 60 years old or more. They aren’t worth retrofitting, so they are closing down.

If that seems like too slim a provocation for rebellion, look at the war’s other front: another EPA rule that pretty much outlaws construction of anything but those “clean coal” plants that grab carbon dioxide right out of the smokestack and shove it underground. Given that those plants are thus far only creatures of myth and longing, it’s fair to say the EPA carbon rule would stop a new coal plant.

And yet, the EPA rule has absolutely nothing to do with why no one is building coal plants in America.

The situation reminds me of a nature hike I went on once, where we came across a box turtle. The naturalist told us that the box turtle might be extinct, only it didn’t know it yet. This odd state of affairs is because, for various reasons, the turtles seem not to be reproducing. No matter how many of them there are today, if there aren’t any babies, they are effectively extinct.

That’s the case with coal-fired power plants in America. There are hundreds of them in existence, and they still supply a third of our electricity, but nobody is building any new ones.

This has been true for the last few years, so blaming the Obama EPA smacks of political opportunism. Not that anyone would accuse politicians of that.

Of course, there are differences between a turtle and a coal plant. For one thing, everybody likes turtles. Coal plants, not so much. Over the last decade, all across the country, local people have banded together to shut the worst coal plants and to stop new ones from being built, citing health costs from breathing toxic pollutants and eating mercury-contaminated fish, the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, and problems dealing with the toxic ash that is the primary waste product of coal burning.

But I think the real reason no one wants a new coal plant has to do with an ad campaign the coal industry ran when environmentalists started attacking the myth of “clean coal.” The coal industry figured it was just setting the record straight when it ran its own ads trumpeting the information that burning coal is a major way America gets electricity. “Coal keeps the lights on!” they announced.

And Americans, who thought their electricity came from little switches on the wall, were appalled.

“We’re burning what?” they asked each other. And that was the beginning of the end for coal.

Still, what Americans want, and what actually happens, doesn’t always coincide, so let’s move on to a second cause of coal’s decline. We’re talking about a force more powerful than either Fox News or public opinion: money.

That’s right: if you really want to find the culprit behind the death of coal, you have to finger the free market. That’s because coal’s chief competitor for making electricity is natural gas, and natural gas is ridiculously cheap today. For this we have to thank new methods of shale fracking that have people almost as upset as they are about coal burning, but with less success because gas is profitable and coal is not.

If you thought it was a bad idea for utilities to be single-mindedly dependent on coal, then you probably also think it’s bad that, after dropping coal like so much fool’s gold, the same utilities are now panting just as hard after natural gas. But if you stood up for coal on the basis that it was (a) cheap and (b) American, then you really can’t be heard to complain about its death at the hands of natural gas.

It’s far more convenient to blame the EPA, because it had the courage to come out of its mouse-hole, wave its tiny sword around, and announce, once no one wanted any new coal plants, that it was going to make it darn hard to build any new coal plants.


The EPA isn’t waging a war on coal; the free market is. But that makes for a lousy sound bite.

Originally posted to Power for the People on Tue Sep 25, 2012 at 07:18 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Manifesto Initiative and DK GreenRoots.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Pointing at a gov't bogeyman means never having (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Wells, Odysseus, burnt out

    to intend one's statements to be factually accurate.

    One thing I wonder about with respect to coal country (having no experience of it): while coal has been a traditionally dominant source of regional employment, aren't there entrepreneurial types out there looking to diversify away from coal, & talking about the need to be more economically diverse as a condition of overall economic health & opportunity?  Education & healthcare seem to lag terribly as a result of coal dependency.  Geography poses some challenges, but there's no reason that community organization couldn't, uh, coalesce (couldn't resist) around some options to improve transportation infrastructure & explore other advantages of the region, such as, oh, mountaintop wind power.

    Before elections have their consequences, Activism has consequences for elections.

    by Leftcandid on Tue Sep 25, 2012 at 07:49:36 AM PDT

  •  Natural Gas won't be cheap for long (8+ / 0-)

    Fracked wells have a drop off in production that is extremely fast.  This "hundred" years of NG stuff is a joke.  In a few short years we'll realize we just squandered another opportunity to use a transitional fuel to get us to an ALT-E economy.

  •  You didn't mention what they had to do (4+ / 0-)

    to get HR3409 passed:

    Members on Friday refused, 178-229, to affirm the Environmental Protection Agency's scientific finding that carbon pollution is a cause of global warming. This preserved language in HR 3409 (above) that repudiates the finding. A yes vote backed the amendment.
    That's the political equivalent of LA-LA-LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU.

    Ancora Impara--Michelangelo

    by aravir on Tue Sep 25, 2012 at 07:53:00 AM PDT

  •  So electricity doesn't come from switches on the (4+ / 0-)

    wall?  Now I'm really confused.

    And Americans, who thought their electricity came from little switches on the wall, were appalled.

    “We’re burning what?” they asked each other. And that was the beginning of the end for coal.

    This is a brilliant summation of the typical understanding of where things come from, and in turn the explanation for how we can never get to making decisions based on the  the fully loaded costs of anything, whether it's electricity, gasoline, a new subdivision, or a burger.

    Thanks for a great column,

  •  i just posted today (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    burnt out, Ice Blue

    That my S-I-L is an engineer for a "clean coal" company and that the bosses were emailing every day that a vote for Obama will kill their jobs.  Highly educated employees are taking this as gospel.  

    Glad my daughter told him to start getting his resume out and use his brains to work in a company that can help the world for their two kids.

  •  The natural gas industry has been pushing the (0+ / 0-)

    slogan that it is the clean burning fuel. Now just what would be the dirty burning fuel? Chesapeake Energy took this a step further and worked with the Sierra Club on their anti-coal campaign.

    If you read the pro-coal literature where they talk about the "war on coal' these facts are usually mentioned. But instead of attacking their true enemy, the one that really does want to put them out of business, they demonize the EPA. They seem to think that the gas barons are just slightly confused.

    Hey coal supporters, if the coal industry is eliminated that means more money for the natural gas industry. Do you think that they are idiots? Of course they want to destroy you. The EPA just wants you to clean up your act. If you want to do something productive for coal start supporting the anti-fracking movement.

  •  EPA has a lot to do with it. (0+ / 0-)

    Part of the reason coal plants are so expensive to build is that new plants have to meet EPA regulation and environmental groups have been appealing EVERY proposed coal plant. Environmental groups using the EPA appeal process and insisting on enforcement of EPA rules has driven up the cost of building or maintaining a coal plant. So, yes cost is a factor but for the sake of honesty we should point out that EPA regulations are part of driving those costs higher.

    There isn't a war on coal. There's a war to stop climate change. It's a mistake to be apologetic about that or pretend it isn't happening. The half dozen or so new EPA regulations of coal will continue to drive up the cost of operating plants. That's how Obama's EPA is dealing with climate change and we should celebrate that as they move forward.

  •  Also (0+ / 0-)

    the rush to build new coal plants slowed several years ago before the price of natural gas went so low. If you're involved with the Sierra Club you should be aware of the coal campaign's work in that regard. I don't think there's any benefit to hiding a success story.

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