Coal's Future Threatened More By Fracking's Success Than EPA Regulation

USEIA/Public Domain
US Net Electricity Generation By Fuel, 2010.

A Wall Street Journal article declares that "The Coal Age Is Nearer to Its End." That's no surprise. Realizing the underlying cause, however, is enough to make a Tea Partier puke up his coal chunks. Reliance on coal for electricity is markedly down and competition by cheap natural gas is the main cause, a quoted expert has stated in a WSJ article - via citation in Society of Environmental Journalism blog.

For decades, coal produced more electricity than all other fuels combined, and as recently as 2003 accounted for almost 51% of net electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But its share has dropped sharply in the last couple of years. It fell to 43% for the first nine months of 2011, as natural gas's share has jumped to almost 25% from under 17% in 2003.

Activism's unexpected blow-back potential.
This dynamic could be reversed by blunders originating from conservative and conservationist activists alike.

If environmental activists, for example, were to succeed in their campaign to ban facking, Big Coal would regain lost market share and overall mercury emissions would increase.

Conversely, if Tea Partiers make additional gains in their drive to demoralize Federal regulators and reverse a half-century of clean air progress, fracking would become cheaper still.

Here's why. The fracking industry currently resists air emission rules as much as it resists EPA's efforts at setting uniform waste water treatment and groundwater quality standards. By avoiding the costs of meeting protective standards wherever they might drill, natural gas stays cheap, and more coal-based jobs will be lost. This would be specifically because of any additional Tea Party/LIbertarian efforts. Remember: many aspects of coal production, distribution, and use are already exempted from Federal regulation due to the highly effective lobbying of that industry over the years.

Summary of unexpected consequences.
As things stand, thermal coke coal sales (excludes the highest quality coal which is reserved for coke production by steel makers) will be further eroded by low natural gas prices. Overall mercury emissions will continue to go down because of increased reliance on natural gas for electricity (which emits far less mercury per BTU generated). Much of the frackable reserves for natural gas production are found in the northern states.

More confusion in the carbon flux maelstrom.
Though it is seldom publicly acknowledged, natural gas too contains mercury, though much less than coal. Power plants burning natural gas emit significant mercury. Orders of magnitudes less than coal fired plants do but there, nonetheless.

Natural gas sold to residential markets is scrubbed to remove mercury - to avoid gas fired stoves and ovens and fire places and heaters filling the home with mercury vapors.

Until now it has been "OK" to be surrounded by coal-burning emissions outside. EPA's new rule has Mad Hatters on the run; so it is time for Republicans to point the finger of blame where it clearly does not lie - at US EPA.

Fair disclosure.
I'd subscribed to the online version of WSJ from day one of it's availability until Rupert ended up owning it. Coverage like this makes me wish George Soros had bought it so I could read the whole story.

Tags: Coal

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