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Trump’s Coal Delusions

November 22, 2016

During the second presidential debate on October 9, Republican presidential nominee (now President-Elect) Donald Trump claimed that “clean coal” could meet the energy needs of the United States for the next 1,000 years. Now that Mr. Trump will be in the position of making national energy policy, it’s worth examining that assertion.

First, does our nation really have 1,000 years’ worth of coal? No official agency thinks so. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates United States coal reserves at 477 billion short tons, a little over 500 years’ worth. But this calculation is probably highly misleading. A 2007 study by the National Academy of Sciences criticized the history of systematically inflated national coal reserves figures, while still allowing that, “there is probably sufficient coal to meet the nation’s coal needs for more than 100 years.” Still other studies ratchet that “100 years” down much further.

In 2009 I spent several months reviewing the available data and studies; the results were published as the book Blackout, which concluded that there is a strong “likelihood of [global coal] supply limits appearing relatively soon—within the next two decades.”

The U.S., China, Britain, and Germany have all already mined their best coal resources; what remains will be difficult and expensive to extract. Coal production from eastern states (West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania) has been on the skids for decades as a result of the depletion of economically minable reserves. The focus of the industry’s efforts has therefore largely shifted to Wyoming, but production there is now waning as well. A 2009 study by Clean Energy Action, a citizen group in Boulder, Colorado, confirmed that Wyoming and Montana hold a large portion of remaining U.S. coal reserves, but also concluded that 94 percent of reserves claimed by the mining industry and the U.S. Energy Information Agency are too expensive to extract. It’s probably safe to say that there are sufficient supplies of coal there and in the rest of the U.S. to permit mining to continue for decades into the future—but only at a declining rate.

In short, from a supply standpoint alone, the idea of 1,000 years of coal—enough to supply all of our energy needs for a millennium—is so exaggerated as to be laughable.

Does attaching the word “clean” to the word “coal” somehow change that picture? Hardly. For years, Americans have seen billboards and TV commercials touting “clean coal,” while politicians on both sides of the aisle have extolled its promise. The technology to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants has been tried and tested. Yet today almost none of the nation’s coal-fueled electricity-generating plants are “clean.”

Why the delay? The biggest problem for “clean coal” is that the economics don’t work. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is extremely expensive. That gives the power industry little incentive to implement it in the absence of a substantial carbon tax.

Why would implementing CCS be so expensive? To start, capturing and storing the carbon from coal combustion is estimated to consume 25 percent to 45 percent of the power produced, depending on the approach taken. That translates to not only higher prices for coal-generated electricity but also the need for more power plants to serve the same customer base. Other technologies designed to make carbon capture more efficient aren’t commercial at this point, and their full costs are unknown.

And there’s more. Capturing and burying just 38 percent of the carbon released from current U.S. coal combustion would entail pipelines, compressors and pumps on a scale equivalent to the size of the nation’s oil industry. And while bolting CCS technology onto existing power plants is possible, it is inefficient. A new generation of plants would do the job much better—but that means replacing roughly 600 current-generation power plants.

Altogether, the Energy Department estimates that wholesale electricity prices with the initial generation of CCS technology would be 70 percent to 80 percent higher than current coal-based power—which is already uncompetitive with natural gas, wind, or even new solar PV installations.

The price per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced from solar and wind power is steadily dropping, with no bottom in sight. The only thing that keeps coal-based electricity even in the ballpark of prices for renewable energy sources is the industry’s ability to shift coal’s hidden costs—environmental and health damage—onto society at large. If climate regulations eventually kick in and the coal power industry adopts CCS as a survival strategy, the task of hiding from the market the real and mounting costs of coal can only grow more daunting.

The problem is that coal just isn’t “clean.” CCS won’t banish high rates of lung disease, because it doesn’t eliminate all the pollutants from the combustion process or deal with the coal dust from mining and transport. It also doesn’t address the environmental devastation of “mountaintop removal” mining.

By the time we transitioned the nation’s fleet of coal-burning power plants to CCS (which would take three or four decades), the nation’s coal production would be supply-constrained as a result of ongoing depletion. Let’s face it: the coal industry is dying. If Mr. Trump wants to put the industry on life support by subsidizing it somehow, he will only delay the inevitable, while spending money uselessly to do so.

In all likelihood, our real future lies elsewhere—with distributed renewable energy and a planned substantial reduction in overall energy usage through efficiency measures and a redesign of the economy. The inevitable transition away from fossil fuels will constitute a big job, and it only gets bigger, harder, and more costly the longer we delay it. Claiming that it makes sense to return to coal at this late date is delusional for economic as well as environmental reasons.

  • Dendric

    All of this should provide some motivation for us to look more deeply into alternative energy sources. There are important emergent technologies that are not currently being covered by mainstream news services. For more information see http://ufsolution.wixsite.com/unifiedfieldsolution/proven-tech .

  • Bob Fearn

    We already have a clean nuclear fusion plant that will supply us with all the energy we will need for billions of years. Why are we mucking around with fossil fuels that cost trillions and kill millions???

  • Peter from Dracos

    I think the big point that is missing here is Industrial Hemp. Clean burning manmade “coal” (or rather biomass fuel) can be made from industrial hemp. Since the carbon atoms are neither created nor destroyed hemp sequesters as much carbon as it gives off. It has to, in order to grow back again. Please test this assertion. Also,

    So it seems to me that the “clean burning man made coal” made from hemp has a carbon footprint of net zero. Although, you can aslo make natural gas from hemp in the form of methanol. This would eliminate the need for fracking. Plus it is a way of obtaining a natural gas that actually sequesters carbon and prevents soil erosion.

    Perhaps we should Diversify our energy system since in terms of the cost of converting old plants vs building new ones. Such situations typically having a declining marginal utility. It wouldn’t hurt to diversify the system. No wy of generating power is perfect you got lung cancer, that wind mill sound that drives people crazy, how are the metals mined to make turbines? And I heard lithium is used in solar panels which is mined, extremely toxic, and comes from over seas so carbon emissions for that. I also heard it causes wars in places like Afghznistan where it comes from. Not sure but, it also pours more money into the silicon valley economy which is sometimes but not always a benevolent industry to people and planet.

    Farming and plant workers having jobs are very friendly to people and planet. Meeting somewhere in the middle is the best you are going to get out of Trump. This is a well put together article but I am not exactly a draconian carbon crusader. since the sun is acting up and NASA even says so. and when the heat goes up the catrbon goes up because of the oceans release more co2 in warmer weather. They also sequester co2. The co2 was actually higher during the medieval times and it wasn’t due to all those midevial cars!!! Hilary Clinton is a crook. and carbon taxation is nothing short of giving a world government the power to tax member states and therrefore declare war on any states who do not submit so Im pretty sure war and world government are bad for people and planet.

    But anyway, please our petition at https://wh.gov/ienKq because hemp sequesters carbon and can be used for fuel, paper , clothing, food, wax, resin, hempcrete, particle board, medicine and more. It is also very good to the soil and a new opportunity for our nations farmers. https://wh.gov/ienKq

  • Mike

    Richard, thanks for this article. I’m curious though what your thoughts are on the “new” oil discovery in Texas which is reportedly 3x the size of the Bakkan play. Is this another example of the oil industry overstating the size of a discovery to attract investors and/or overlooking the EROEI of these sources, or could this discovery prolong the status quo for a while longer?

  • http://richardheinberg.com/ Richard Heinberg

    This is not a “discovery”; it is an estimate of possibly existing resources that could be extracted with existing technology if cost is no consideration. Conventional drillers have already scoured this region, so the resources that the USGS is speculating about are presumably all unconventional, requiring horizontal drilling and fracking. Tight oil producers elsewhere in the US are currently losing money on production, with the whole industry quietly closing up shop; new drilling in the Permian will face the same high-cost barriers to profitability. The USGS announcement doesn’t change much in terms of prolonging the status quo. PCI will be publishing a more lengthy analysis of the Permian play prospects shortly.