Trump, GOP climate change denial hastens coal’s decline

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As Donald Trump prepares to accept the Republican nomination for President, it’s worth noting that he’s right about at least one thing: American coal use is declining rapidly, as he said in recent speech on energy.  

Ten years ago, coal supplied about three-fifths of US electricity; last year it provided less than 30% of the power mix and falling fast. Major US coal companies have lost 90% of their value in recent years, with Peabody Coal, the nation’s largest, Arch Coal Inc., and other big firms declaring bankruptcy. 

However, Trump’s claims that his climate denial approach can prevent coal’s decline — “We are going to save that coal industry, believe me,” — are entirely fatuous. In fact, the head-in-the-sand routine on climate by Republicans in Congress has already greatly contributed to coal’s collapse.  

By not coming to terms with coal’s emissions and climate change liabilities and by refusing to support climate legislation needed to fund investment in technologies to address them, the GOP has left coal with nowhere to turn. Now Trump seems intent on repeating this approach, consistently denying the overwhelming science of climate change and proposing nothing to address it. 

For years, Republican opposition to any climate legislation has helped convinced the coal industry and allies among electric utilities to oppose tens of billions of dollars in subsidies that were on offer as part of the carbon market bills.

Indeed, Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Tea Party allies made defeating cap and trade legislation, a market approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions, a top priority in 2009 and 2010, helping to kill the bill.  

Yet funding in the legislation for utilities was specifically intended to finance large investments in commercial scale carbon capture and storage or ‘CCS’ plants — technology that can safely and permanently sequester emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.  

For at least a decade, it has been obvious that CCS would be needed to make coal more viable in an inevitably carbon-constrained US market. But Republicans wanted to use carbon pricing as campaign issue in the 2010 mid-terms and since — attacking it as “cap and tax” — never mind the actual long-term impact on coal country and the coal industry. 

Now, even as they fight a last ditch legal battle against the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan carbon regulations, major coal companies like Peabody and some Congressional Republicans are finally backing new bills to provide extra tax and financing incentives for deployment of carbon capture technology.  

GOP Congressman Mike Conaway of Texas has introduced legislation to extend and reform the federal tax credit to support wide scale commercial deployment of carbon capture and storage. As Republicans begin to see the writing on the wall, Conaway’s legislation has gained 30 mostly GOP co-sponsors and support from elected or appointed officials in 21 states.  

Ohio’s Republican US Senator Rob Portman, who is up for reelection, has introduced a bill that would provide CCS plants tax-free bond financing, the exact same approach used in the 1980s and ‘90s to fund the scrubbers and other power plant technologies that cleaned up much of America’s conventional air pollution and improved air quality around the country.

These developments are long overdue, since CCS technology can limit emissions not only from coal, but also from natural gas and industrial sources, and so has  begun to get support from Democratic Senators like Michael Bennet and Sheldon Whitehouse concerned about CO2 emissions.

Cost problems with Southern Company’s Kemper CCS plant in Mississippi have little to do with the technical or cost issues related directly to CCS, but are largely the result of poor management, as the New York Times reported last week.

In any event, the future of the US CCS market is likely not purpose-built coal CCS plants, as the Kemper plant is, but retrofits on existing coal and gas plants with post-combustion capture, to cut long-term emissions.  

Other CCS plants like the Boundary Dam project in Canada show strong promise to help reduce costs for future plants.

Energy Secretary Moniz, who has consistently supported CCS incentives for climate change mitigation, recently noted that “having a continued opportunity for coal use in a highly carbon-constrained world is something that’s attractive for carbon reasons. It’s also attractive in addressing the coal country, the dislocations that otherwise would become even greater.”

Many other prominent climate advocates like Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs believe that both natural gas and carbon capture are likely to have critical roles if the US is to achieve very large greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the next two decades.  

An American system in 2035 of roughly 35% renewable energy (up from about 10% today), 40% natural gas and coal with carbon capture, and remaining amounts coming from steady nuclear and hydropower fleets, could meet the long-term US emissions cuts of 60 to 80% that the vast majority of scientists and climate experts agree will be needed.  

This is precisely why President Obama, Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau and Mexican President Nieto just last week included CCS as one of the clean energy technologies they’ve committed to use to produce 50% of each nation’s electricity from clean sources by 2025. 

Such shifts in North American power production have the potential to drive down the global costs of clean electricity, both from renewable energy and with lower cost retrofits of carbon capture and storage on existing coal and gas power plants in big emitting nations like China and India.

Analysis by the International Energy Agency suggests that both elements will be needed to meet long-term UN emissions goals worldwide, as well.   

Carbon capture is the last, best chance for the responsible coal use in the US, and can have an important role in climate protection domestically and globally, but advocating it requires acceptance of the basic science of climate change.  

Donald Trump and other Republicans should listen to their colleagues who are recognizing coal’s drawbacks and supporting efforts to overcome them.  Right now, those are the only credible elephants in the room when it comes to coal and climate change. 

Bledsoe is president of Bledsoe & Associates, LLC, an energy, tax and climate policy consultancy. He was communications director of the Senate Finance Committee from 1993-1995 and communication director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton.


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