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Published on October 8th, 2016 | by Tina Casey

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Yet Another Coal Vs. Shale Gas Study Confirms Fossil Industry Cannibalizes Self

October 8th, 2016 by  


The US Energy Information Agency has had its share of critics, but they certainly nailed this one. EIA has been arguing that cheap shale gas is the main factor behind the collapse of the US coal industry, and a research team from Case Western Reserve University has just added a new study to a growing pile of evidence in support of that claim.

The new Case Western study is significant because coal industry supporters been hammering away at the idea that the US Environmental Protection Agency is the cause of its woes. That position is supported by numerous Republican (and some Democratic) office holders including Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has been promising to save coal jobs by abolishing EPA.

coal-vs-natural-gas-fracking-usa

EPA Steps Aside, Shale Gas Dukes It Out With Coal

The Case Western team correlated EIA’s data on shale gas and coal consumption with changes in US Environmental Protection Agency regulations going back to 1990, and found … no correlation.

The new study, published in The Electricity Journal, looked at domestic power plant fuel consumption (in the US, central power plants account for 93% of domestic coal production).

As described by the study, in 1990 then-President George H.W. Bush signed new EPA regulations into law. Then, this happened:

Consumption of coal continued to grow under those 1990-era EPA rules until 2008, and then went into steady decline, dropping by 23 percent from 2008 thru 2015.

While the new EPA regulations may have slowed the growth of US coal consumption, they certainly did not stop it, let alone drive coal consumption into negative territory.

More to the point, what happened after 2008? Nothing, if you look at EPA regulations. New federal rules tightening up emissions from power plants did not go into effect until June of this year, under President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. That would be 2016, for those of you keeping score at home.

On the other hand, if you look at shale gas production after 2008, the change was earth-shattering. According to the study, natural gas production “increased by a factor of more than 10 and its price dropped in half.”

The study also notes that the rise of natural gas has been partly self-reinforcing. The competitive price of shale gas incentivized infrastructure investments — namely, new gas pipelines and storage facilities — that made gas an even more attractive alternative to coal.

Actually, It Was The Airplanes

If you’re a fan of the classic film King Kong, that final, famous bit of dialogue is probably burned into your memory:

Police Lieutenant: Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.

Carl Denham: Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.

Denham was right, but the Lieutenant was more right. Mr. Kong should not have stalked a woman who had no interest in him, but she wasn’t the one who shot him off the top of the Empire State Building from an airplane. The powerful creature was no match for modern technology.

Not to stretch a comparison (but we will anyways), the coal industry simply has not kept up with technological developments in the natural gas industry in particular, and in the energy field in general.

On the consumption end, the Case Western researchers note that the Heat Factor for coal, a standard indicator of power plant efficiency, has remained relatively constant in recent years.

Contrast that with rapid developments in natural gas technology:

While the Heat Factor (an efficiency metric) of coal-fired power plants has largely remained constant, intensive R&D in combined-cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) is leading to Heat Factors that are 40% better than coal-fired generators.[6],[7] Additionally, CCGTs offer superior generator nimbleness in the face of changing demand and outages, an advantage in grid reliability that is important to the nation, and can translate to increased dollar incentives for the utilities.

The research team anticipates (as do many other industry observers) that moving forward, new technologies in the form of low-cost renewable energy will exert more pressure on coal.

Part of that dynamic is being pushed forward within the gas power plant sector itself, as suppliers leverage the “nimbleness” of natural gas for gas-solar hybrid power plants.

Even before the Clean Power Plan, state-based renewable energy rules have pushed the market for wind and solar power, paving the way for massive new transmission lines as well as utility-scale wind farms and solar arrays.

The Enemy Within

Though not part of the study, it’s also of interest to note that both the oil/gas and coal sectors benefited from lax oversight during the George W. Bush Administration from 2000 to 2008.

During that time, both industries began to dramatically expand their use of formerly “unconventional” extraction technology, a trend that continued into the Obama Administration.

For the coal industry, the expansion involved mountaintop removal coal mining. Practiced mainly in Appalachia, mountaintop removal has involved literally blowing up hundreds of mountains and burying thousands of miles of streams in the waste rubble.

In the gas and oil sector, the expansion involved hydrofracturing, aka fracking. The practice surged into new regions of the US partly due to a loophole in federal water safety regulations, engineered by the Bush Administration in 2006.

In the end, that loophole appears to have aided the natural gas industry far more than any action the Bush Administration took on behalf of coal.

Image via US Energy Information Agency


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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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