Coal gets short end of stick in energy debate

 

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Leading up to the second debate, that was what Americans were hoping for and were all but promised – a meaningful exchange over our nation’s energy future. Unfortunately, what Americans got were mostly platitudes, catch phrases, and he-said-she-said cattiness, lined with a few production numbers.

Throughout the campaign, both President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney have proclaimed to have an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. However, a closer look at the candidates’ policies reveals that both pursue approaches that tilt the scales in favor of certain energy sources, with coal getting the short end of the stick.

President Obama’s preference for so-called renewable energy sources is well-established, but oil and gas, nuclear energy, and coal are also included in his official “all-of-the-above” energy platform. Meanwhile, media reports point out that coal was conspicuously missing from the description of the President’s energy policy earlier this year, and was not added until after several congressional inquiries.”  This omission appears all but deliberate when seen in the context of what some call the Obama Administration’s “War on Coal.”

Indeed, recent regulatory changes implemented by the Obama Administration have placed a disproportionate burden on the coal industry. Mining permits have been suspended, and coal mines subjected to new permitting restrictions which effectively ban modern surface mining.

Perhaps the most visible display of the administration playing favorites is a set of regulations handed down or proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Faced with new air emission standards, several utilities found themselves forced to convert their coal-fired power plants to natural gas in order to avoid shutting them down. A proposed rule requiring that any new coal-fired plant effectively be constructed with technology that has not been fully developed - leaving gas as the only option - would complete the regulatory sleight of hand, creating a defacto mandate for natural gas.

While natural gas has its merits as part of a balanced energy portfolio, one cannot dismiss that an overreliance on it is fraught with problems. Job losses associated with coal being pushed out as the United States’ main source of electricity would be painful as the multiplier effect is significant in this field. According to industry estimates, every job in coal mining creates an additional 3.5 jobs elsewhere in the economy. But job losses are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  

Natural gas prices are prone to volatility, with its price per million Btu having ranged from $3.56 to $12.04 between 2000 and 2009, compared to a stable coal price that never exceeded $2.20 during that period.  This is in part why forcing America’s power generators to switch from coal to gas requires significant government intervention. Meanwhile, the environmental benefits of such a move remain questionable, as natural gas comes with more environmental baggage than often assumed, especially in the extraction process.

Gov. Romney briefly touched on the issue in the televised debates, but he remained specifically unspecific, and failed to use the forum to kick off that meaningful national debate the millions of Americans glued in front of the TV sets were hoping for.

Perhaps it is because in spite of public professions of his love for coal, Gov. Romney’s energy agenda also appears to favor natural gas over coal. Drilling more for oil and gas seems to be the order of the day for Romney - as his campaign’s white paper on the subject suggests: While the word “gas” appears 83 times throughout the document, and “natural gas” 34 times, coal merely gets fifteen mentions.

It would have been the time to broaden the debate, but once more, politics is running its course in this election cycle. In order to ensure that every constituency gets tossed a verbal bone, both candidates support policies for political gain. There will be a winner on November 6, but there is one big loser, and it’s not so much the other candidate, but the average American family that has yet to see an honest discussion on what fuel or combination of fuels would best suit America’s future energy needs.

Fabry is a freelance writer and public policy expert. Focusing on state and federal spending, accountability, and regulatory issues, she previously served as the executive director of the Center for Fiscal Accountability, which has recently been rebranded as the Cost of Government Center at Americans for Tax Reform.

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