We write a lot about coal — and its long, slow demise as an energy source — for lots of reasons. We have some counties in the corner of Southwest Virginia whose economy has been based on coal, and which are in dire need of building a new economy. These are counties that are easy for both the state and federal government to ignore, and journalists have traditionally adhered to the mantra of “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In that spirit, we point out, yet again, that Gov. Ralph Northam has not followed through on his campaign pledge to turn the University of Virginia’s College at Wise into a research university with that research focused on renewable energy.
The coal economy, though, isn’t confined to the coalfields. It extends to the Roanoke Valley, where there are companies that make that living selling and repairing mining equipment, not to mention a railroad that still hauls coal through the center of the city. The former workers at FreightCar America also can attest as to what the decline of coal can mean.
Sometimes we’re surprised at who pays attention to our words. That was the case this week when we got a call from one particularly engaged reader — Dan Brouillette, President Donald Trump’s secretary of energy.
Brouillette called to deliver a very different message: Coal isn’t dead. It’s future is just overseas.
Trigger warning: Our environmentally inclined readers may want to reach for the blood pressure medicine.
Coal is very much declining as a source of American energy. The latest figures show it’s now just the fourth-biggest source of generating power in the U.S, behind natural gas, renewables and nuclear. There’s not much that even a pro-fossil fuels administration can do to reverse those trends. The free market is inexorably voting for the cheapest fuels available and that’s no longer coal.
Brouillette, though, says “there’s a very bright future for coal.” Why? Because coal exports remain strong and some of our biggest foreign customers are doing something we’re not — building more coal plants.
American coal exports go up and down with the economy, but the general trendline is mostly up. Coal exports hit a low of 39.6 million tons in 2002 and have generally been rising ever since. Last year, we exported 92.85 million tons. (Irony: We hit that low under a pro-fossil fuel Republican administration and hit the all-time high in 2012 under a “war on coal” Democratic administration, which shows just how impervious the markets often are to politics.)
Our two biggest customers for coal exports are India and Japan — and both are in the process of building more coal plants. Even if India doesn’t add any new capacity, it’s still very reliant on coal — 58% of that nation’s energy comes from coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (By contrast, in the U.S. coal accounts for only 16.4% of American energy.)
India is also adding lots of renewables, too. The reality is that India — in a drive to modernize its society — needs lots of energy and is adding lots of different forms of it. That makes India both a poster child for renewable growth — and for its voracious consumption of coal. Just two different posters. “We have a great economic opportunity to help India meet its future needs,” Brouillette said. He doesn’t think coal will decline as fast in the U.S. as some think or wish but that’s not really the point. “What I don’t see is the end of coal as we know it,” he said. “Economic markets around the world, especially Asia, are going to depend on this energy source for decades to come.”
If you believe in coal, this is an opportunity. If you’re in favor of “leave it in the ground,” this is a problem. That’s not all. India also is ramping up imports of natural gas — more than twelvefold since 2004. Most of that natural gas is coming from the Mideast and Africa but the U.S. share of that market is growing — up from zero to 8% of the Indian market in 2019. “As [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi looks at the future of his country, he wants to buy American coal, he wants to buy American natural gas,” Brouillette said.
There have been some who have warned that the Mountain Valley Pipeline isn’t really about supplying the domestic market, but a way to get Marcellus Shale natural gas to the export market. Brouillette asks what’s wrong with that? Don’t Indians deserve the same right to have its lights come on the way Americans expect theirs to? Rhetorically, this seems to put environmentalists on the side of keeping developing countries in poverty because it’s hard to grow renewables that fast. Of course, India is also now the third-largest emitter of carbon emissions in the world. What do we do about those?
Brouillette puts faith in carbon capture and sequestration technologies. The science works, he says, the challenge is making the economics work. (Some of that research into carbon capture and sequestration has taken place at Virginia Tech). His department is spending $200 million this year on more research. He foresees a day when coal plants and natural gas plants might not emit any carbon at all. “I think it’s very close,” Brouillette said. If you want to keep digging for coal and fracking for natural gas in a carbon-free world, that would be a glorious day — the best of both worlds. If you don’t like a pipeline being dug through the mountains, a carbon-free natural gas plant doesn’t help at all.
Brouillette touts other uses for coal besides burning it. Most electronics today require rare earths — the name for 17 particular elements on the periodic table you learned about in school. The problem is that maybe 90% of the world’s supply of rare earths is in China. “For those who don’t think about national security perhaps it’s time we do so in terms of China,” he says. Plus, solar panels require rare earth minerals, so “if we continue this rush to renewables, we’re essentially moving these jobs to China.” Now for the kicker: Some rare earths can be extracted from coal. (Once again, some of the research into this is taking place at Virginia Tech.) “It would the irony of ironies the fact that coal would be the savior of renewable energies,” Brouillette said.
Trump has not fulfilled his pledge to “bring back King Coal” because that’s beyond the power of an American president. However, if you believe Brouillette’s assessment of the global market, the future of Appalachian coal might depend on the prime minster of India.
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