Energy is Essential. Coal Is Not.

In a recent op-ed, Clean coal is essential to America, current Energy Secretary, Dan Brouillette, tried, unconvincingly, to make the case for a fuel source that by all measures should be going the way of the do-do. He argues coal is a cornerstone of the American energy matrix, pushes the false idea that coal can be made “clean” (or “cleaner”), and argues that coal is essential to national security. But current market realities undercut almost all of the Secretary’s points and the administration would show more leadership if it dealt with the situation as it is rather than as it wishes it were.

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette

Before deconstructing the argument, I want to note that his was largely a political campaign push. Aside from publication on Penn Live, a news site devoted to Keystone State happenings, circulation seems limited to coal-friendly sites and blogs, and relevant government sites such as the Department of Energy, the White House, etc. Major outlets of all political stripes do not, as of this writing, carry it, and its release coincides with a visit to the wider Youngstown area by Vice-President Pence, accompanied by Secretary Brouillette. Yes, administrations do things like this all the time, which might explain the article’s weakness. It is less an energy policy and more an attempt to shore up a key voting bloc. Still, politics aside, Brouillette’s argument is weak.

Mr. Clean

First, there is the premise that clean coal is essential to America. It is not. Energy is essential to America, and utilizing more advanced technologies to produce it should be America’s priority. Doing so creates better jobs and keeps the U.S. at the forefront of the global energy marketplace instead of clinging to an environmentally disastrous fuel source that the world is decidedly leaving behind. Just as the transportation sector, also essential to the American economy, traded in the buggy for the automobile, so must the energy sector transition to more modern solutions.

Brouillette then offers what might be a counter to the previous paragraph: new technology will make coal clean! Unfortunately, coal trying to make coal clean would be like trying to kiss your elbow – you’d get close, but it simply cannot be done. (Admit it, you just tried, didn’t you?) He also claims that new coal plants with adequate technology can drastically reduce pollutants, almost at 100 percent in some cases. The qualifiers are included for a reason. Carbon dioxide emissions aside, the white plumes spewing from coal plant stacks still contain tons of particulate matter, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide, and nitrous dioxide (or Sox and Nox, in industry parlance) that impact local communities, particularly poorer ones living near the plants.

Coal’d Sweat

Another telltale sign of the op-ed’s weakness is the need to mine for support by scaring readers. For example, the Secretary writes:

…imagine if during the height of COVID-19′s spread, when Pennsylvania’s hospitalizations had reached their peak, the flow of electricity had been drastically interrupted. The cost to human life would have been both tangible and tragic.

To begin with, current hospital backup generator requirements prevent this exact scenario. Second, this is a strawman argument. No one has ever proposed that electricity supply might be in danger during the COVD-19 pandemic. Even if electricity became scarce, natural gas and nuclear facilities, which comprise 40 and 20 percent, respectively, of the U.S. electricity generation matrix could cover the deficit. This is especially true of natural gas, which, like a gas-powered stove, ramps up much more quickly. Coal by contrast takes days to ramp up significant production.


The unconvincing argument continues with a muddling of ideas and a grasp for the tired “renewable energy is intermittent” boogeyman. Specifically,

Critics contend that coal can be replaced by emissions-free renewables like wind and solar power. Granted, there is a growing place in our electric grid for these and other sources like natural gas and nuclear energy. Under the president’s plan for innovation-driven energy dominance, we are committed to developing, producing, using, and exporting every fuel source and technology we have. Through the power of innovation, we are truly pursuing an “all-of-the-above” American energy strategy.

But what happens to renewables when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine? Contrast that with the rock-solid reliability of coal, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. In fact, during the 2019 polar vortex, coal was critical for heating homes in many of the affected areas of the nation.

Put more succinctly: We are mimicking the Obama administration approach to a diverse energy market. But renewables are risky. Therefore, coal is still the best.

Except it isn’t. First, if the U.S. wants to export all available technology, it makes more sense to prioritize the technologies that have not been hamstrung by the greatest exogenous shock markets have seen since the 2008-09 financial crisis. Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, renewable energy, though impacted, is on pace to grow by 6 percent year on year. Contrast that with a fossil fuel industry that is expected to see a record setting contraction. One need only look at current gasoline prices to see that depressed demand leaves the world awash with fossil fuel supplies with nowhere to go.

Oil prices in April went negative for the first time in history due to a lack of storage. (Source: New York Times)

Second, regarding intermittency, no renewable energy advocate would argue solar and wind power are immune. Nor would they argue that they meaningfully threaten fossil and nuclear plants. Renewable energy comprises about 18 percent of the country’s electricity generating fleet, and the lion’s share of that is large-scale hydropower.

They would, however, argue that further research and development in battery technology is necessary to increase market share and resolve intermittency challenges. If the Secretary is as concerned about the future of America’s economy vis-à-vis the energy sector, sustained job creation, and national security, he should be looking more closely at the present (and the future, for that matter) than the past.

Third, coal has not been as immune to nature as the Secretary would have you believe. Coal plants suffered about as much as gas and nuclear facilities during recent cold snaps. In fact, coal piles have been known to freeze to the point of being unusable at times. So much for its rock solid reliance.

If there is any source the Secretary should be trying to undermine in defense of coal, it’s natural gas. Natural gas has eroded coal’s dominance of the U.S. electricity matrix far faster, and with much more economic devastation, than renewable energy has. Natural gas currently comprises 40 percent of the U.S. electricity generation fleet, and, until the Coronavirus outbreak, was the cornerstone for the Trump administration’s global “Energy Dominance” strategy. Its economics have made it very attractive. It generates a kilowatt-hour of electricity for about half the price of coal, and with substantially fewer greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

A comparative look at how much it costs to generate electricity from various sources. (Source: Lazard.)

Coal’d Comfort

Secretary Brouillette attempts to argue economic and national security for further support of coal. He states coal is vital to the American economic interests, but again, the data is not on his side. The green economy is worth $1.3 trillion and employs ten times as many people as the fossil fuel industry. In fact, solar jobs have significantly outpaced coal jobs recently.

Further, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects approximately 47,000 new “green” jobs in the near-term.

Brouillette projects that approximately the same number of new coal jobs are in the offing thanks to new investments and innovation. He writes,

Through a new initiative called Coal FIRST, we are laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s coal plants. “FIRST” stands for flexible, innovative, resilient, small, and transformative. We want these plants to be emissions-free.

Everyone wants them to be emissions-free, but that comes with a cost. Pollution reduction – whether achieved with current or future technology – raises the cost of building and operating a coal plant, which does not help economic security. Regulations would ensure use of “scrubbing” technology, but regulations are exactly what this administration has systematically removed. So, unless the Secretary has a plan for changing the president’s mind, emissions-free plants remain little more than a hypothetical.

Furthermore, considering the protracted decline in coal jobs, it is difficult to see how this sector contributes to any sense of long-term economic security.

If this long-standing downward trend continues, so will instances of current coal workers having to fight for not just their jobs, but the benefits they have accrued along the way. Therefore, with respect to long-term economic security, it might be better to devote resources that transition remaining coal workers to an industry that is more forward-looking rather than propping up a dinosaur. Those who rail against picking winners and losers and extoll the virtue of the “free market” should see the writing on the wall. The green economy is the way of the future.

Secretary Brouillette’s argument that the coal industry is vital to national security is probably the strongest point of the op-ed. Steel production, as well as rare earth minerals, play a vital role in the supply chain of defense products and modern electronics. However, economics has led to U.S. reliance on overseas supplies. If the United States wanted to reduce overseas dependence on such a critical resource, it would have to turn more inward. However, a more focused use of coal for procuring such supplies is not the same as backing the entirety of the coal industry. A more nuanced discussion regarding extraction limits, environmental consequences, and end uses is necessary to adequately determine coal’s role in the energy and extractive landscape.

So what?

The United States’ energy future is clear, and coal’s role in it is rapidly diminishing. If the United States is going to remain a world leader in energy generation and technology, resources should be devoted to extensive research and development in the solutions of tomorrow rather than the outdated solutions of the past. Coal might still be a useful resource for products that are truly related to national security, but as a significant contributor to a vibrant economy, that train has left the station.

Were the Secretary to make an argument for a future-focused energy policy, he might talk about the complex realities of energy generation, consumption, how to do more with less (i.e., energy efficiency), and how to create the energy we need without causing further environmental degradation. This would include a very frank discussion about the role of nuclear power, capable of delivering overwhelming amounts of baseload power with no GHG emissions. Nuclear waste still remains an issue, but innovation changed the game with the first steam engine and again with fracking. The same can happen in the nuclear sector. Focus there. Of course, that complex landscape would include the proliferation – and pairing – of renewable energy and battery technology, and delve deeply into the overlap with sectors including buildings and transportation.

But that is for a more nuanced and blunt discussion. In the Secretary’s defense, this was an op-ed aimed at a specific voting bloc. Writing such an op-ed the day before a visit from the administration is exactly the type of thing cabinet members do. Secretaries Chu and Moniz did the same for Obama. However, that does not excuse him for at least not presenting some very real facts about the coal industry, the headwinds it faces, and the potential of transitioning current workers toward industries that continue to prove themselves more sustainable in the long run. That is exactly the type of leadership and forthrightness voters deserve in an election season, the type of leadership they claim to want and need. This op-ed missed the mark on both.



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© 2020 by Mark Konold