Climate-Unfriendly Coal May Be Losing Ground in U.S., But Not Worldwide

October 7, 2020

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Like many coal-operated facilities around the United States, the Cholla Power Plant in Joseph City, Ariz., its stacks shown above, is slated for retirement, with the first of its units to shut down later this year. Photo: Alan Levine, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Issue Backgrounder: Climate-Unfriendly Coal May Be Losing Ground in U.S., But Not Worldwide


EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2021 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

By Joseph A. Davis

Of all the fuels used to generate electricity on a large scale, burning coal emits the most carbon dioxide per unit of heat. That means moving the world’s energy systems away from the once-dominant coal toward cleaner and renewable energy sources is seen as a key to controlling global climate change.

And coal is markedly on the decline as a fuel for the generation of electricity in the United States. In 1997, coal was producing some 52.8% of the U.S.’s electric power. In 2019, its share of the U.S. electric power fuel diet was down to about 23.5%. This year, it is projected to fall to 17.6%

Does that mean coal is no longer king? Well, yes … and no. To mangle a quote from Mark Twain, news of coal’s death is greatly exaggerated. The reason? Coal combustion globally is not going down.


Why the decline in the U.S.? 

There are a number of important reasons why coal’s use as an energy source in the United States is down. Most important is the epochal fall in the price of natural gas, thanks mostly to an abundant supply produced by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the country’s shale formations. 

Natural gas most often fuels new power plants, while old coal plants are being retired as uneconomical — or themselves repowered by gas. The development of a world market for natural gas via liquified natural gas makes it worse.

There’s no question — coal is a dirty fuel. Even forgetting carbon dioxide, burning coal produces another gas, sulfur dioxide, which is a key precursor of acid rain. Efforts to control acid rain from coal burning go back to at least the 1980s. Some controls were passed by Congress in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act and they have had some beneficial effect.

But coal burning can also emit a number of other harmful pollutants — not only pollutants that produce smog, but also an array of toxic heavy metals like mercury, lead and cadmium, not to mention carbon monoxide and soot.


Epic tale of ‘war on coal’ 

If you only get your information from U.S. mainstream media, however, you might not know all this. The U.S. coal industry has produced a torrent of misinformation on its deathbed (remember the “war on coal?” And the Trump administration’s declaration “the war on coal is over?”)

The decades-long effort to control coal-based pollution has been an epic tale for environmental journalists since at least the 1970s, actually. And it has been a big part of the nation’s effort to reduce air pollution. 


For many years, the coal and utility industries 

held off some controls by grandfathering plants 

so they could skip “new source review” when upgraded.


It’s a long, complex story, so let’s simplify things. For many years, the coal and utility industries held off some controls by grandfathering plants so they could skip “new source review” when upgraded — allowing them to operate lots of old plants without expensive pollution controls.

Then, the Obama administration, unable to get a climate bill through Congress, launched a series of regulatory measures (most notably its “Clean Power Plan”) that would have pushed utilities to move away from carbon-intensive coal to other, more climate-friendly power sources. 

Not surprisingly, the coal industry did not like this and re-launched the rhetorical meme that climate and pollution controls amounted to a “war on coal.” 


Coal’s clout waning, but not gone

When this all began decades ago, the coal industry was powerful politically (hence “King” Coal), with allies in both parties (Jennings Randolph, D-W.V., once chaired the Senate Environment Committee). That has been changing. 

Coal still has clout in Appalachian states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, and in Rocky Mountain states like Wyoming, Colorado and Montana. But that clout, which once shaped clean air legislation and regulatory policy, has diminished as coal’s economic power has waned.

But coal’s influence is not gone. The industry remains a powerful ally of the current administration. 

Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House in 2016 emphasized promises to help the coal industry through deregulation. Robert Murray, head of a major coal company, practically wrote the agenda (may require subscription) for Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. Andrew Wheeler, the current administrator of EPA, is (among other things) a former coal lobbyist. 

It didn’t take long for the Trump EPA to replace the Obama Clean Power Plan with its own, coal-friendly, alternative. But legal action over the Clean Power Plan policy is still in court and likely to stay unresolved until after the election. 


Unfulfilled promise to rescue industry

Meanwhile, an array of other deregulatory moves aimed at helping coal has not stemmed the tide. Domestic coal consumption has continued to decline, particularly because of falling domestic demand. 

China operates about half the world’s coal-fired generating capacity. Above, a coal barge on the Yangtze River. Photo: Ted McGrath, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Utilities keep announcing coal plant retirements (see our related Reporter’s Toolbox, “Plant Trackers Help Mark Coal’s Decline”). In fact, more coal plants have announced retirements during Trump’s tenure so far than were retired during the last four years of Obama’s presidency, the putative peak of the “war on coal.” 

In the past decade, more than 546 U.S. coal-fired units were retired and more than 50 U.S. coal companies declared bankruptcy. Even Murray Energy, Trump’s special friend, filed for bankruptcy in 2019 — the eighth coal company that year (may require subscription).

Certainly, Trump has failed to rescue coal during his four years in office, as he pledged. Some in West Virginia may remember this, although the state will probably remain Trump country in the upcoming election, even if some voters (subscription required) there are disappointed. But in some other states, like the swing state Pennsylvania, the failed rescue may make a difference.


Globally, a very different picture

When you broaden the view to the globe, however, coal is more alive than dead. And from a climate perspective this is what matters. World combustion of coal is not likely to go down for the next five years. And those may be years we don’t have.

Look at the numbers for 2020. According to the Global Coal Plant Tracker, China alone was operating 1.023 million megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity. That is about half of the world’s total of 2.047 million MW. By comparison, India was running just 228,000 MW and the United States 240,000 MW. 


Further U.S. reductions, while important, 

are unlikely to make a weighty difference 

in worldwide coal emissions.


In short: Further U.S. reductions, while important, are unlikely to make a weighty difference in worldwide coal emissions.

It is helpful, when considering coal, to remember that it is a heavy, bulk commodity, one whose transportation costs make up a major portion of the total cost of delivered coal. 

In the United States, transport is in the neighborhood of 20-40% of the total cost. As a consequence, historically coal has remained a regional commodity. Electric utilities are happy when the power plant is right near the coal mine.

Some U.S. coal producers have entertained the hope that a global coal market could rescue the domestic industry. But it won’t. The biggest markets are in China and India. While they are hungry for coal, they do have their own supplies. 

Moreover, suppliers like Australia (which currently has a very pro-coal government) are poised to fill those nations’ needs more efficiently and economically than can the United States. In fact, coal export ports in the United States are limited, especially in relation to Asia.

It is noteworthy that the International Energy Agency, or IEA, sees a steady future for global coal consumption over the next five years. 


China’s reliance on coal bad news for climate

All this has implications for the international climate treaty, the Paris Agreement.

As it was unveiled and promoted by the Obama administration, the Paris Agreement depended heavily on an expectation of goodwill, mutuality and cooperation between the United States and China. Diplomatically, that was key. 

But the Paris Agreement worked largely because each country could simply declare its own contribution. This allowed China to continue its heavy reliance on coal in the near term — however great its green-energy future might be.

Things have changed. Since Trump took office, the relationship between the United States and China has worsened — more conflict, less cooperation and more chaos. 

China still may continue making strides in developing and exporting green energy technology. But all along, the reliability and transparency of energy data controlled by the Chinese government have been issues. 

And meanwhile, China is burning roughly four times the amount of coal as the United States. The IEA sees Chinese demand for coal remaining strong over the coming five years.

So whatever happens in the occupancy of the White House, as long as the price of natural gas remains as low as it is, coal’s share of the U.S. market may keep decreasing. 

But for the immediate future, coal will keep most of its 40% share of world electric generation, come what may for global climate change.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 36. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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