If there’s a War on Coal, Obama’s helping coal

We’ve been looking at methane lately, and at how Obama’s new rules (the “Clean Power Plan”) will attempt to take us from coal (a cheap, sulfurous, inefficient fossil fuel) to methane (a soon-to-be-cheaper, less sulfurous, more efficient) fossil fuel as an energy source.

The coal industry is calling this a War on Coal, they blame regulation, and they want it to stop.

In fact, coal is already a casualty — of the free market. The falling price of methane (“America’s natural gas”) has driven coal sales down and methane sales up. Coal is already losing in the U.S. market. Here’s Dave Roberts writing at Grist in 2012 (my emphasis and some reparagraphing everywhere):

Long story short, the regulatory climate for coal is slightly more favorable than expected two years ago. But it doesn’t matter, because “market conditions” are kicking coal’s ass anyway.

One market condition has to do with demand for power, which has slowed/plateaued due to the recession and recent mild weather. Another is the falling price of renewables. But the big one, the cudgel to coal’s head, is natural gas prices. You will recall that in April, natural gas generation equaled coal generation in the U.S. (at 32 percent each) for the first time since the Energy Information Administration started keeping records. Utilities are cranking natural gas up and retiring coal plants, mainly for economic reasons. Nick Akins, president and CEO of the coal-heavy utility American Electric Power, has said flat out that “there will not be any new coal plants built, with the current price of gas and the forecast for the future for gas.”

And then, again, there’s those EPA rules, which appear also to be putting pressure on coal plants, however slowly.

Does that mean coal is dead and the climate relatively safe from it? If you thought that, you’d be wrong. Coal that’s mined in the U.S. may not be burned in the U.S., but it will be shipped abroad and burned there, unless that mining and that shipping is blocked. Coal emissions are coal emissions, no matter where the coal is burned.

Shipping coal has a large state-by-state aspect. Mining coal, however, has a very large federal — meaning, the Obama administration — aspect. Meaning, Obama has control of a good part of it.

So what’s Obama doing with the coal under his control? Answer: Selling it, dirt cheap, to coal companies.

Obama has been aggressively selling permits to mine coal on federal land

So this is another EPA rules story with an “on the one hand, on the other hand” aspect. On the one hand, Obama issues EPA rules designed to reduce America’s carbon emissions footprint by putting the squeeze on coal plants.

On the other hand, the Obama administration encourages coal burning by aggressive issuing permits to mine coal on federal land, especially the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Here’s Luiza Chwialkowska Savage, writing in McLean’s (h/t DeSmogBlog’s Steve Horn):

The centrepiece of Barack Obama’s climate policy, announced this month, limits greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants largely by cutting the country’s reliance on coal. The policy was touted as a major piece of the President’s environmental legacy but it raised an important question: what will happen to America’s coal—the largest recoverable reserves in the world?

It’s a question that could soon have an answer. With coal demand at home expected to fall by 20 per cent due to new regulations, and competitive pressure from low-priced natural gas, coal companies are now pushing to increase exports to Asia. … Three new coal-export ports are being proposed for the Pacific coast: two in Washington state and one in Oregon. They could eventually ship up to 100 million tons of coal per year—an amount equivalent to the total volume of coal the U.S. will export this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA). …

Environmentalists warn that emissions from that volume of coal would dwarf the savings from Obama’s new power plant rule.

And the federal government is a big source of that coal. Ms. Savage again:

The port approvals are a state matter, but the Obama administration does have a role to play in shaping the fate of coal exports. That’s because the coal that would go through the new ports would come from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where 80 per cent of the coal resource is owned by the federal government. The basin produces some 400 million tons of coal per year.

And the government — Obama’s government — practically gives the stuff away:

Since 2009, the Obama administration has sold leases for more than two billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin for rates as low as $1 per ton, drawing the wrath of critics, including some in Congress, who say too much coal is being leased too cheaply. (Coal from the Powder River Basin is worth about $13 per ton.)

And they’re considering selling a whole lot more, even today, after the EPA rules were released:

As it reviews its long-term plans for the leases, which could eventually put another 10 billion tons of coal up for auction, the administration has so far resisted calls to include carbon emissions abroad in its decision-making.

What do you make of this? Is Obama serious about carbon emissions, or not?

If Obama were serious about carbon emissions, he’d stop all coal production on federal lands

Is Obama serious about climate change and carbon emissions? Or is what’s happening in the front office (the EPA) the part you’re supposed to notice, while the fat cats and the government play scratch-my-back games in the warehouse (the Bureau of Land Management), where the real money changes hands.

Is the Obama administration, like the rest of the government, in bed with the fat cats after all?

The Littles and the Bigs. Only one of these groups is visible to the public.

The Littles and the Bigs. Only one of these groups is visible to the public. (Can you find Coal and Oil?)

If Obama is really serious about carbon emissions, he’d stop coal production on federal lands; stop it completely. Remember, this is his Bureau of Land Management. Those people work for him. To the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t need Congress to say No to federal coal.

All he needs is … to want to. You can ask him to want to. “Dear Mr.Obama, please say No to Federal Coal. Zero new coal leases on federal land. Period.”

White House phone numbers:

Comments: 202-456-1111
Switchboard: 202-456-1414

Operators are waiting. This isn’t over, folks.


Twitter: @Gaius_Publius
Gaius Publi

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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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