Coal industry executives, their friends at Fox News, and politicians trolling for votes in coal country are up in arms about what they are calling “the war on coal.” The “war” consists of EPA regulations affecting both the oldest coal-burning electric generation plants and ones not yet built. Under the first set of rules, the aging dinosaurs in the coal fleet—those grandfathered in under the original Clean Air Act in the 1970s–will finally have to meet modern-day pollution standards for mercury and smog-forming chemicals, so they kill fewer people. These plants have all outlived their 30-year design life, and many of them are 60 years old or more. They aren’t worth retrofitting, so they are closing down.
If that seems like too slim a provocation for rebellion, look at the war’s other front: another EPA rule that pretty much outlaws construction of anything but those “clean coal” plants that grab carbon dioxide right out of the smokestack and shove it underground. Given that those plants are thus far only creatures of myth and longing, it’s fair to say the EPA carbon rule would stop a new coal plant.
And yet, the EPA rule has absolutely nothing to do with why no one is building coal plants in America.
The situation reminds me of a nature hike I went on once, where we came across a box turtle. The naturalist told us that the box turtle might be extinct, only it didn’t know it yet. This odd state of affairs is because, for various reasons, the turtles seem not to be reproducing. No matter how many of them there are today, if there aren’t any babies, they are effectively extinct.
That’s the case with coal-fired power plants in America. There are hundreds of them in existence, and they still supply a third of our electricity, but nobody is building any new ones.
This has been true for the last few years, so blaming the Obama EPA smacks of political opportunism. Not that anyone would accuse politicians of that.
Of course, there are differences between a turtle and a coal plant. For one thing, everybody likes turtles. Coal plants, not so much. Over the last decade, all across the country, local people have banded together to shut the worst coal plants and to stop new ones from being built, citing health costs from breathing toxic pollutants and eating mercury-contaminated fish, the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, and problems dealing with the toxic ash that is the primary waste product of coal burning.
But I think the real reason no one wants a new coal plant has to do with an ad campaign the coal industry ran when environmentalists started attacking the myth of “clean coal.” The coal industry figured it was just setting the record straight when it ran its own ads trumpeting the information that burning coal is a major way America gets electricity. “Coal keeps the lights on!” they announced.
And Americans, who thought their electricity came from little switches on the wall, were appalled.
“We’re burning what?” they asked each other. And that was the beginning of the end for coal.
Still, what Americans want, and what actually happens, doesn’t always coincide, so let’s move on to a second cause of coal’s decline. We’re talking about a force more powerful than either Fox News or public opinion: money.
That’s right: if you really want to find the culprit behind the death of coal, you have to finger the free market. That’s because coal’s chief competitor for making electricity is natural gas, and natural gas is ridiculously cheap today. For this we have to thank new methods of shale fracking that have people almost as upset as they are about coal burning, but with less success because gas is profitable and coal is not.
If you thought it was a bad idea for utilities to be single-mindedly dependent on coal, then you probably also think it’s bad that, after dropping coal like so much fool’s gold, the same utilities are now panting just as hard after natural gas. But if you stood up for coal on the basis that it was (a) cheap and (b) American, then you really can’t be heard to complain about its death at the hands of natural gas.
It’s far more convenient to blame the EPA, because it had the courage to come out of its mouse-hole, wave its tiny sword around, and announce, once no one wanted any new coal plants, that it was going to make it darn hard to build any new coal plants.
The EPA isn’t waging a war on coal; the free market is. But that makes for a lousy sound bite.