Plummeting coal use and peaking stockpiles
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Tallying up receipts after each Valentine's Day, subtle signals like champagne sales can signify the state of the economy. Now, however, it's time to consider a weightier, less romantic signal of economic and planetary health: coal stockpiles.

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Coal is piling higher even as it's mined less, from China to the United States and perhaps India. This stunning phenomenon provides massive indication that the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan targets may already be met, that Chinese industry may be slowing and greening, and that our planet will likely avert the worst-case and even middle-case scenarios of warming.

Like the caged canaries brought into mines to warn of unsafe levels of pollutants, coal stockpiles signal the state of the coal industry. Stockpiles in China slipped into the news with a below-the-fold, back-section, New Year's Eve article from China Daily USA. As an air-climate-energy scholar, I read its headline with the awe of a political historian reading "Dewey Beats Truman." "No new coal mines to be approved for three years to cut stockpiles," the headline told the few of us who bothered to notice.

To me, that headline was a jaw-dropping eyeopener. Our assumptions in climate science have been based upon energy and emissions forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), International Energy Agency (IEA) and others, showing an inexorable rise in emissions unless dramatic mitigation is undertaken.

For the world's leading consumer of coal to be banning new mines to trim stockpiles speaks volumes. Together with India and smaller developing countries, China was expected to be an engine of growth for fossil fuels. Just in November 2015, news emerged that China had been exceeding its reported levels of coal burning for years.

Now China's coal use must be falling, not rising, and will soon fall more quickly. Confirmation of falling China coal use came with news from the Chinese news agency Xinhua, which reported plans to close 4,300 "outdated" mines. The mine closures will reduce China's coal production capacity by 700 million tonnes, from 5.7 billion.

The shuttered coal capacity in China nearly matches total U.S. coal production in 2015. The China National Coal Association reports domestic coal demand dropped 3 percent in 2014 and an estimated 4 percent in 2015. On a human scale, the mine closures will require China to redeploy 1 million workers in a three-year span, dwarfing U.S. employment in coal mining.

The diminishing role for coal extends far beyond China. The U.S. Department of the Interior mirrored China's three-year new mine ban with its own three-year moratorium on coal leases on federal lands. U.S. coal production fell another 10 percent in 2015 after peaking in 2009, yet weekly coal production data has recently fallen more than 30 percent below 2015 levels.

The decline of coal is accelerating so rapidly that this year, it will likely bring U.S. power plant carbon dioxide emissions below the levels the EPA sought by the 2030s in the Clean Power Plan. That's why I've been referring to Clean Power Plan litigation as a "moot suit" even before the Supreme Court issued a stay on its implementation this week.

India was once expected to be the biggest growth region for coal as it seeks to electrify its rural regions and grow its economy. Now, India's energy minister acknowledges that solar power is cheaper than coal, and a coal glut has been acknowledged.

Even with all the policy changes, coal is piling up in China, India and the U.S., where the Energy Information Administration finds coal stockpiles up 33 percent in January 2015 from January 2013 levels. Bans on new coal mines and the shuttering of old ones should curtail coal stockpiles, yet appear to be falling behind mounting trends.

Though plunging coal use reduces air pollution, stockpiles are wasteful. Coal oxidizes in air, so its heat content and quality begin to deteriorate as soon as coal is mined. Stockpiled coal also releases harmful gases and must be managed to prevent spontaneous combustion.

Coal is piling up even as our needs for it shrink. Wind and solar now provide cheaper options for new electricity capacity than coal. Relic coal plants, built mostly in the 1960s to 1980s before the emergence of more natural gas use, struggle to compete at any coal price. It's simply too expensive to transport and process coal and then clean up its exhaust, when sunshine and breezes directly deliver affordable energy. That's true even as prices for Wyoming's Power River Basin coal have sunk into the single digits; i.e., less than half a penny per pound. Since carbon dioxide from coal combustion with oxygen weighs more than coal, paying for coal to stay unmined could now be considered as a low-cost way to sequester carbon.

Plummeting coal use is profoundly good news for our lives and our planet. Coal combustion is a leading contributor to the 7 million deaths per year that the World Health Organization attributes to air pollution, and the leading source of planet-warming carbon dioxide. Its mining is linked to countless tragedies, from mountaintop removal to the Elks River, W.Va. water contamination fiasco.

The good news of falling coal use counters projections from energy forecasting agencies like IEA, which continues to project coal use growing by more than 2 percent a year through 2019. Such growth is nearly unimaginable given the trends described above.

So even as the petals and perfume pile up past Valentine's Day, peek over at the peaking stockpiles of coal. They're a surprising harbinger of a planet destined to keep most of its fossil fuels in the ground as the Fossil Age dims.

Cohan is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University. His research specializes in the development of photochemical models and their application to air quality management; uncertainty analysis energy policy; and health impact studies. Nir Krakauer, assistant professor at City College of New York, and Leah Parks, co-author of "All Electric America" and associate editor of ElectricityPolicy.com and Electricity Daily, provided minor edits on this piece.