So much for clean coal. In a White House speech earlier this week President* Trump provided the American public with a rundown of his administration’s environmental achievements, with a special focus on natural gas. He left a box or two unchecked, though. One of those was the US coal industry. In fact, the word “coal” does not appear in the official White House transcript at all.
Clean Coal: Dream On, Klingon
Considering how often Trump promised to save coal jobs during his successful** campaign for the Oval Office, it’s odd that he didn’t take the opportunity to tout the Energy Department’s ongoing clean coal programs. After all, clean coal is supposed to create new jobs while helping to reduce global carbon emissions.
Oh, well. In consideration of the President’s affinity for winners, it does make sense to leave clean coal off the list. After all, the US coal industry has continued to decline under his watch, clean or not.
Just take a look at the Energy Information Agency outlook for coal published on July 9:
EIA forecasts that U.S. coal production will total 684 million short tons (MMst) in 2019, down by 72 MMst (9%) from 2018. U.S. coal production will further decline by 45 MMst (7%) in 2020. This expected decrease is the result of declining coal consumption in the electric power sector and a lower forecast demand for U.S. coal exports.
Natural Gas Cuts Clean Coal Lifeline
Come to think of it, the Commander-in-Chief also gave short shrift to coal in his 2019 State of the Union speech, choosing instead to focus on the nation’s booming oil and gas exports.
With domestic coal consumption tanking, coal producers are looking to the export market, too. They are not getting much help from the Trump administration on that score.
Instead, the Trump administration has been working hand over fist to promote natural gas exports. That’s especially clear in Europe, where longstanding US policy aims at cutting the region’s dependence on natural gas imported from Russia.
Europe’s coal power plants are caught in the crossfire, but don’t tell anybody, it’s a secret! Actually, never mind. It’s not a secret. The President’s affection for natural gas goes back to his first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who as former CEO of ExxonMobil played an instrumental role in promoting the US shale gas revolution and the consequent boom in natural gas exports.
The secret also slipped out during the White House remarks, when Trump introduced Energy Secretary Rick Perry to say a few words. Perry let the cat out of the bag (from official White House transcript):
We’re being able to deliver liquefied natural gas to [the European Union] so they can move away from these dirty or burning old, inefficient plants, and bring a cleaner environment to those countries.
What was that he said about “dirty or burning old, inefficient plants?” A word or two seems to have been left out of the official White House transcript, but it sure seems like Perry meant that liquid natural gas exports from the US will help the European Union make good on its plans for a “hard exit” out of coal power.
Where does that leave US coal miners, their families, and their communities? If you have an answer besides “holding the bag,” drop us a note in the comment thread.
The Fossil Fuel Whack-a-Mole
To be clear, there is no such thing as clean coal (or “clean” natural gas, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms). Reducing or eliminating emissions from coal power plants is just one of coal’s environmental problems. The impacts of coal mining, transportation, and coal ash disposal also need fixing.
Nevertheless, the Energy Department soldiers on. The agency’s Office of Clean Coal and Carbon Management is still cranking out funds to improve coal-to-electricity technology, including a new $87 million round of R&D funding for coal power plant improvements earlier this spring.
That’s nice, though it doesn’t solve coal’s bottom line problem for power generation: natural gas is cheaper, and renewables are beginning to compete with both coal and natural gas on price.
Just about the only consolation for coal now is that it has company on Trump’s list of US energy industries not to be mentioned in public. The President didn’t mention the booming US wind industry in his speech, either. Three guesses why not!
Oddly, enough, though, he did give a shoutout to the US solar industry:
..there is a very good place for solar energy. I’m a believer in solar energy. It hasn’t fully developed. It’s got a long way to go, but it’s really got a tremendous future.
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