Is there really a "War on Coal"? And should there be? Yes and Yes.

Following President Obama's announcement of his climate change policy, talk about a "War on Coal" has increased. But has there really been a war on coal in the form of a top-down multi-year, sustained policy campaign against coal, a la the "War on Drugs" or "War on Terror?" Or is the "War on Coal" just another industry-backed marketing campaign created to rally support for a cause, similar to the "War on Christmas" or the "War on Soda"? Or is it a mix?

Below I'll highlight some excellent reporting that tells the story of how the coal lobby created the "War on Coal" slogan to advance their industry interests, as well as point to some good arguments for why this shouldn't just be left as an example of faux-outrage, but should rather be turned into a real sustained campaign.

First, let's start with the swift responses to Obama's climate change speech that accused him of waging a war on coal.

The Democratic Senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin, was quick to defend coal, which is not surprising being that he is from West Virginia. The Washington Post reports:

“The regulations the President wants to force on coal are not feasible. And if it’s not feasible, it’s not reasonable,” Manchin said in a statement. “It’s clear now that the President has declared a war on coal. It’s simply unacceptable that one of the key elements of his climate change proposal places regulations on coal that are completely impossible to meet with existing technology.”

Another politicians from a coal state, Representative Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) made his case in The Hill:

President Obama needs to recognize that maintaining reliable and affordable energy is not something that just happens. When a switch is flipped, rarely do we stop and consider the tremendous amount of hard work and ingenuity that was required to light up a room or power equipment.
...
The administration’s “War on Coal” threatens to eliminate coal as a viable option and replace it with unproven sources that cost more and deliver less. Even worse, if the president is successful, the coal industry and its thousands of Ohio employees will not be the only casualties.

It is worth-noting that they are framing this as Obama's War on Coal. If there is a War on Coal, it is not just being waged by Obama. Every other energy source wants to take away market share from coal. So from the start it seems safe to concede that coal is under attack, but it isn't clear that it is an Obama War on Coal that the industry should be most worried about.

For example, Lucia Graves at Huffington Post compiled statements from Ohio and Texas's biggest providers of coal energy, which show some of the energy companies themselves seem to welcome the President's plan:

The companies’ temperate response dramatically undermines the Republicans’ “war on coal” line of attack. Are industry players just keeping their powder dry with the hope of watering down regulations at some later date, or do they see the inevitability of a shift away from coal?

A recent report from the Energy Information Administration shows coal-fired power declined from nearly 50 percent of America’s power mix in early 2011 to 34 percent in March 2012. That’s the lowest it has been since the agency’s record keeping began in January 1973.

This decrease in coal power generated plays a role in coal's power in Washington, as well.

National Journal’s Coral Davenport has a truly must-read story on the origins of the "War on Coal" narrative and how the industry has seen its power decline in recent years. In that piece, Davenport observed that the president’s attack on coal is not something that would have been politically viable even a few years ago, but she also notes the damage inflicted to the industry by the boom in natural gas:

Coal is under siege from forces beyond its control. Its dominant place in the American economy is slipping—and so, for the first time in a century, is its ability to get what it wants from Washington. There are two big reasons for this. The first is economic: Over the past two years, as a glut of cheap natural gas has flooded the U.S. energy market, coal has been pushed out. The second is more existential: The world is waking up to the fact that pollution from coal-burning plants is the chief cause of global warming. Although some coal companies still deny that, governments around the world don’t—and they are pushing policies to end coal’s use. In the U.S., President Obama is deploying the full force of his executive authority to crack down on climate change. Coal is now reckoning with its role in global warming, whether it likes it or not.
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Once upon a time, such an announcement — a shot across the bow of King Coal — would have been political suicide. No more. The mine is collapsing.

© BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

In what could be seen as a desperate move, the coal lobby created the "War on Coal" slogan to try and rally support for both President Romney and their diminishing industry. Davenport explains how the coal lobby used the 2012 presidential campaign as a launch for the 'War on Coal' narrative:

In October, just ahead of the presidential debates, the group launched a $35 million ad campaign attacking Obama for shutting down coal plants, destroying jobs, and hobbling the nation’s economy. The lobby conducted nonstop TV, Facebook, and Web video campaigns, it sent its “citizen army” to rally for Mitt Romney in coal country, and it ignited the narrative that Obama was waging a “War on Coal.” It was a culmination of the coal industry’s multiyear push against the Obama administration’s energy policies, and coal threw everything it had against him. From 2008 to 2012, the industry nearly quadrupled its political contributions, directing 90 percent of its money toward Republicans.

While they originated the term, now it isn't just the coal lobby that is using the "War on Coal" language. Just prior to Obama's climate change speech, The Washington Post reported that a one of Obama's scientific advisors used the war on coal language:

“The one thing the president really needs to do now is to begin the process of shutting down the conventional coal plants,” Daniel P. Schrag, a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, told the New York Times. ”Politically, the White House is hesitant to say they’re having a war on coal. On the other hand, a war on coal is exactly what’s needed.”

Despite the temperate responses from coal companies gathered by Graves or the fact that coal is aware they are losing power both in Washington and in the energy mix, Obama’s new energy secretary, Ernest Moniz went out of his way to try and assuage those concerned that the United States will be burning coal for many years to come.

Obama “expects fossil fuels, and coal specifically, to remain a significant contributor for some time,” Moniz told Reuters in Vienna, where he was to attend a nuclear security conference.

The way the U.S. administration is “looking at it is: what does it take for us to do to make coal part of a low carbon future,” he said, adding this would include higher efficiency plants and new ways of utilizing coal.

It is “all about having, in fact, coal as part of that future,” Moniz said. “I don’t believe it is a ‘war on coal’.”

John Upton at Grist got a little choked up:

Well, that’s a relie … cough hack cough … f.

Sharon Kelly at Desmogblog documented Secretary Moniz' support for coal here.

I think all of this has shown that there may be a war on coal, but it is far from simply being a pet project of President Obama's. It is a sign of our changing times and greater competition in the energy marketplace. But should it be left at that or should Obama and the EPA really gear up a serious war on coal since that is already what many feel is already happening?

© GP

The Case For a Serious War on Coal
So the coal lobby, naturally, says there is a War on Coal and the administration, or at least the Energy Secretary, wants to continue saying there is not, but Matthew Yglesias explains why a War on coal would be "a pretty good idea."

...the only way to consider new coal-fired plants a remotely plausible undertaking is to completely ignore the social costs of burning the coal. By the same token, simply throwing all my garbage into my neighbor’s backyard could look like a cheap and appealing alternative to proper trash disposal if I were allowed to completely ignore the costs to my neighbor.

Existing coal plants are a closer call since the private costs of a plant you’ve already built are naturally quite low. But we can see quite clearly that phasing out existing coal in favor of new natural gas is a clear winner. It’s worth dwelling on that for a moment, since it’s actually quite extraordinary for the cost of a brand-new infrastructure project to be lower than the cost of continuing to run what you’ve already built. The moral of the story here is that if you were able to completely ignore political considerations, the case would be very strong for an aggressive and robust war on coal even if you don’t care a whit about renewable energy. And, obviously, if you were to wage war on coal, you wouldn’t need to shut down existing coal-fired facilities at random. You’d want to specifically target the ones that are dirtiest (highest social cost) or for whatever logistical reasons are the most expensive to operate (highest private cost), and the gains would be very large. And this analysis was actually conducted with an outdated social cost of carbon estimate. If you apply the new higher standard, coal looks even worse.

Responding to charges from coal supporters a war on coal will cost the US jobs, Paul Krugman says they are half right:

"They’re half-right. The new Obama plan is, to some extent, a war on coal — because reducing our use of coal is, necessarily, going to be part of any serious effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But making war on coal won’t destroy jobs. In fact, serious new regulation of greenhouse emissions could be just what our economy needs."

Krugman sees any "war on coal" as a boon to Keynesian-style stimulus that would help create jobs through power companies spending to clean up their power sources:

"It’s always important to remember that what ails the U.S. economy right now isn’t lack of productive capacity, but lack of demand. The housing bust, the overhang of household debt and ill-timed cuts in public spending have created a situation in which nobody wants to spend; and because your spending is my income and my spending is your income, this leads to a depressed economy over all.

How would forcing the power industry to clean up its act worsen this situation? It wouldn’t, because neither costs nor lack of capacity are constraining the economy right now.

And, as I’ve already suggested, environmental action could actually have a positive effect. Suppose that electric utilities, in order to meet the new rules, decide to close some existing power plants and invest in new, lower-emission capacity. Well, that’s an increase in spending, and more spending is exactly what our economy needs."

Another case for a sensible war on coal is this new analysis by Synapse Energy Economics of the much-lauded NRDC plan that proposed a state-by-state approach to setting limits on carbon pollution. Their report finds that on average it can create jobs and reduce costs:

Countering critics’ charges, the NRDC analysis shows that the carbon pollution driving climate change can be reined in while creating a net increase of at least 210,000 jobs and modestly reducing electricity bills, by an average of about $.90 per month.

Here's a quick explanation of what the NRDC plan proposes:

In December 2012, NRDC issued a report showing one way to make major reductions in carbon pollution at lower cost with bigger benefits than many would expect by using the Clean Air Act to set state-specific targets for carbon pollution limits. The NRDC plan proposes tailoring pollution limits to the specific energy mix of each individual state; giving utilities flexibility to determine the most cost-effective way to hit the target and would save families on their electric bills by providing incentives to increase energy efficiency.

Doing so, could cut power plant carbon pollution by 26 percent by 2020 at a cost to industry estimated at $4 billion in 2020: about 1 percent of industry revenues. And it would deliver up to $15 in health and climate benefits for every $1 invested.

So, whether you believe in climate change or not, those are three good economic and health reasons for a war on coal.

Of course, it can't be ignored that climate change is a major justification for waging a war on coal. As we've learned from what's called "the terrifying math of global warming", we need to leave a huge amount of fossil fuels that have been discovered in the ground instead of burning them into the atmosphere in order to keep the planet from warming so much as to make it inhospitable to human life. That coal happens to be so dirty of a fuel source makes the decision to burn less of it easy, as unfortunate as that may be for people that have earned their livings mining and burning coal.

The future for coal?
So, we've seen that the coal industry wanted to have the debate about a war on coal, they came up with the slogan, after all. But there are also some good reasons for Obama and climate hawks to accept the premise of a war on coal and advocate for these improvements to our energy mix. So where will we go from here?

Back to the National Journal piece, Davenport explains what the coal lobby has planned, including potentially reframing the debate away from a war on coal:

In the coming weeks, the group will roll out a new public-relations and lobbying blitz aimed at resetting its message and defusing antagonism with the administration. Instead of saturating Fox News with “war on coal” ads, the group will send Duncan on cable news and the editorial-board circuit to talk about coal’s role in the economy and how to create a “path forward” for with new technology.

Behind the scenes, however, the coal companies and the consultants who represent them in Washington are often at loggerheads. Privately, many people working for the coal lobby concede that time has finally come for coal to face up to climate change. They don’t want the coal industry to look like a science-denying dinosaur—a charge that’s also been leveled against many Republicans on the far right. They recognize that the game has changed, with a new energy market and administration that will regulate them against their will. They believe it’s time to stop the war, engage the enemy, and to ask it for help, both in developing environmental regulations and researching the new technology.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that climate change is already happening, another reason the coal industry may want to switch tactics is due to the success of the growing climate movement.

Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones dug up a copy of a presentation presented to coal insiders that documented ways environmental activist groups are winning by highlighting the dangers of coal:

What’s interesting about this is that it shows that anti-coal activists are winning—and that the coal industry is worried. The industry has used the allegation that government regulators and environmentalists are waging a “war on coal” to fight off any and all attempts to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants. But it’s not working.

Obama's "Invest. Divest." shout out to the fossil fuel divestment movement during his climate change speech was another sign of how well the climate movement has changed the debate.

Ken Ward at the West Virgina Coal Tattoo blog thinks coal communities should be planning for the future instead of fighting this battle to hang on to the past:


"… A 1995 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines cautioned that, based on current production levels and known reserves, Boone County “will be able to sustain mining activities for no more than 20 years.”

Given the larger factors at play, do coalfield communities in Appalachia really need another divisive campaign built around calling political and regulatory matters a “war”? Or would the people here be better off if elected officials, business lobbyists and other leaders tried to bring people together to build the future?

As some coal companies have faced financial challenges in recent years, we've also seen reports of coal workers being kicked off health care or losing their retirement funds. After Bill McKibben highlighted one egregious case of this, I wrote about how it should be important that environmentalists not be seen as anti-fossil fuel worker.

Environmental debates are often framed with an Us Versus Them dynamic. If we are to achieve our goal of protecting the environment for future generations, we should strive not to let the debate be seen as a fight between environmentalists versus fossil fuel workers, but rather a fight between moral or immoral choices. As much as environmentalists may dislike the fossil fuel industry and want to see it put out of business, McKibben is right to highlight the immoral actions of Patriot coal and the gross injustice of treating workers in this way.

If there is to be a war on coal, Obama should put forward policies that would help retrain coal workers to find employment in green jobs or with other cleaner energy sources.

Can Carbon Capture and Sequestration Save the Coal Industry?
In order for coal to be a viable energy source in the future, the industry must develop cleaner processes. One option is called carbon capture and sequestration, which involves capturing carbon dioxide from power plants before it is released into the atmosphere and storing it in underground caves. Seriously.

Davenport notes the irony behind this being coal's lifeline:

The good news for the coal industry is that carbon capture exists and that it works. The bad news is that for now, it’s far too expensive to be deployed on a commercial scale. For a coal plant to install carbon-capture technology today would send the price of coal-fired electricity soaring.
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Affordable carbon-capture technology is coal’s moon shot. Because the research is so expensive and the chance of a breakthrough so far off, only one entity is investing significantly in finding a solution: the U.S. government. Specifically, it’s an Energy Department lab called ARPA-E, which stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The lab is modeled after the Defense Department’s DARPA, which developed the Internet and other breakthrough technologies. ARPA-E’s mandate is to find the 21st-century equivalent of an energy moonshot: cheap, affordable, reliable energy that won’t contribute to global warming.

She concludes,

"The irony is extreme: The coal industry is deeply allied with the Republican Party and worked tirelessly to eject Obama from office. But its salvation may rest with his administration."

Because it is such a big industry and there are so many different parties, from mining companies to the utilities and power companies, it's too difficult to predict exactly what the coal lobby will do. But if natural gas continues growing at the pace it has, the price will keep falling and coal power will lose even more market share and clout in Washington. And if the climate movement can keep pressuring the the government, banks and universities to invest in the future and divest from fossil fuels, it seems inevitable that we'll be burning less coal in the coming years, whether President Obama has officially waged a War on Coal or not. However, if he is serious about tackling the issue of climate change, he may want to take this marketing slogan and run with it for the health and economic benefits of Americans and people around the world.

NOTE: I quoted extensively from Coral Davenport's piece at National Journal, because it is just a superb piece of reporting. There is MUCH more in her story that is worth a look, so please go read the rest.

Tags: Air Pollution | Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | Carbon Sequestration | Carbon Taxes | Coal | Environmental Policy | EPA

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