Coal: Politics and Power Supplies

by Nancy McGuire,

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the second in a four-part series on this briefing.

Coal in U.S. Politics
This year’s U.S. midterm elections will increasingly influence the debate on the use, regulation, and export of coal, said Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian. Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, concurred. The Republican Party accuses the Obama administration of waging a “war on coal”, Davenport said. “I think that’s accurate. He is waging a war on coal, but we don’t know what the public reaction will be. They could be OK with the new stricter regulations.”

Noting that some Republican strategists were planning to use missteps in implementing the Affordable Health Care Act and the supposed job-destroying effects of over-regulating the coal industry as a one-two punch in the upcoming campaign season, she cited past examples that this strategy had failed to produce the anticipated public outrage.

Davenport described a “very different dynamic” in the Obama administration from his first term. There is a good chance that draft rules for new coal regulations will pass in time to meet the June 2014 deadline. The administration is pushing the EPA — “nagging them,” said Davenport — to complete the draft rules quickly. She cited public support for the rules as the reason for the administration’s newfound assertiveness in the face of Republican opposition.

This writer notes that this is a shift in direction from the 2012 election season when all three leading presidential candidates sang the praises of “clean coal” as a potentially important contributor to the U.S. energy supply. Dennis Dimick, executive editor of the environment at National Geographic, plugged an upcoming article, “Will Clean Coal Ever Be Clean?” (an article this writer wishes had been published two years ago). Carbon capture, another sound bite from the 2012 election season, is currently being performed on a very small scale compared to carbon output, stated Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”.

Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, noted that the administration’s war on coal was not an all-out attack, since President Obama supports U.S. coal exports.

One audience member asked whether environmental activists were correct to complain about a lack of action by the President on environmental issues. Panel members agreed that pushing the administration for more action was “business as usual” for environmental organizations, but what had changed was the administration’s response.

Goldenberg cited one recent example where John Podesta (senior advisor to President Obama) sharply rebuked a group of U.S. environmental leaders for criticizing the President’s perceived lack of commitment to addressing climate change. Podesta, who until recently headed the Center for American Progress, is known for strongly pushing pro-environmental issues, but even he seemed to have reached his limit. (See this article in The Washington Post.)

Coal Around the World
Coal is both a global commodity and a locally produced and consumed resource, Revkin said. He cited the example of Australia, which does not count the coal it exports to China in its own consumption figures. He also noted that stopping exports to China would have very little impact on the interior of the country, where coal is mined and consumed locally. Although the natural gas boom in the U.S. is driving domestic demand away from coal, the global increase in the demand for coal is outstripping the demand for other energy sources, Dimick said.

One audience member asked whether U.S. port cities could slow coal exports by adopting strict new regulations. Davenport cited the example of a November 2013 county council election in Whatcom County, in northwest Washington State, that was widely viewed as a referendum on a proposed coal export terminal. Pro-environmental groups outspent coal-industry groups in campaign contributions, although spending on both sides was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Bellingham Herald, October 24, 2013) In the end, the progressive candidates won. (Bellingham Herald, November 5, 2013) Almost six months after regulatory agencies made their decision on the scope of the environmental study for a proposed Whatcom County coal export terminal at Cherry Point, the study process itself has not yet begun. (Bellingham Herald, January 19, 2014)

Could other nations, including China, start their own fracking programs, driving an international move away from coal and toward natural gas? Revkin stated that China was more interested in importing liquefied natural gas from the U.S. than in producing their own. Pearl said that China was interested in moving away from coal and toward using more natural gas. Factors impeding other nations’ willingness to begin fracking include concerns about potential damage to their water supplies and uncertainties about long-term waste disposal. “Fracking is forever,” said Goldenberg.

China’s 2015 cap on coal production and consumption might not have a significant effect on U.S. exports to that country, said Revkin, in response to a question from the audience. A lot of their coal is produced locally, he said. Dimick noted that although China imports only 5% of its coal, in absolute tonnage amounts, this is more than the rest of the world combined.

China wants to grow, said Douglas Fischer, editor of The Daily Climate and moderator of Friday’s panel. They are looking at the standard of living in the U.S. and wondering why they can’t have the same. Also, much of the coal they are importing is used to fuel the industries that manufacture products for export to the U.S., so indirectly, the U.S. is fueling their demand for coal, he said.

This is the second in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous post: Global Issues, Local actions. Upcoming topics: Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues, and A World of Slow Drips.

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