Analysis: Attacks on our air and drinking water can’t make coal great again

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When Donald Trump announced his executive order on “energy independence” seeking “a top-down review of all anti-coal regulations issued by the Obama Administration,” he was flanked by coal miners. Holding up his executive order, he asked, “You know what this says, right? You’re going back to work.”

Coal miners have been hard hit by changes sweeping the industry, there’s no doubt. Communities dependent on coal mining across states like North Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming, and Kentucky voted 63-70 percent for the guy who said he would make it all great. But even the utility and coal industry itself knows better. Coal mining is not coming back. Coal is on life support in America, and nothing in the executive order or other proposed actions can change that.

Photo credit: Great River Energy.

North Dakota’s Stanton Station is closing May 1, 2017 after providing electricity to Minnesota for fifty years. Fresh Energy thanks, recognizes, and supports the 68 employees who were working at the plant when Great River Energy announced that the plant was no longer economic. 

The Trump agenda on energy so far has centered on boosting coal. Weakening regulations to allow streams to be filled with coal mining rubble, or allowing drinking water near power plants to be polluted with toxins and heavy metals will not bring back coal. Cooking the books at the Environmental Protection Agency to undervalue the true cost of pollution will not improve the failing economics of coal. Conducting an analysis at the Department of Energy on how wholesale electricity markets affect “baseload power” will only prove that coal is losing ground in competitive markets. Years of fighting the Clean Power Plan in court will be a full employment act for lawyers, but will not employ more coal miners.

Nearly half of all coal in the U.S. is produced by companies going through chapter 11. Coal production in 2016 was at the lowest level since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began collecting data in 1978. Jobs in the coal mining industry declined from 67,500 to 56,600 from April 2015 to April 2016—a loss of 10,900 jobs in one year. None of this can be reversed by Trump’s actions.

Fresh Energy’s goal remains the phase-out of all coal in an orderly fashion. We are closely allied with national champions like Michael Bloomberg and Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to use long-range utility planning, grassroots organizing, and clean air and clean water laws to phase out coal dependence, but one of our most effective tools to retire coal is economics and new technology.

Coal is getting beaten in the market by renewables and by gas, even though the coal industry cuts costs by replacing workers with robots and automation. In March, for example, Xcel Energy announced that it will invest $2.5 billion in the new wind projects while saving more than $4 billion in fuel and other costs. These new wind resources will produce energy at a lower cost than Xcel’s cheapest coal plant, and continue the massive growth of jobs in the renewables industry.

Brand new wind farms, as well as combined-cycle natural gas plants, are generating electricity cheaper than from coal plants more than 50 years old and fully paid off. New solar energy can now beat the price of a new coal plant (if any were being built) and solar energy is closing in on old coal economics as well.

As Xcel Energy’s CEO Ben Fowke has said recently, the electric industry “is not going to build any new coal plants in today’s environment. And if [power companies are] not going to build new ones, eventually there won’t be any.” CEO Fowke is not alone. Power sector capital investment strategies are multi-billion-dollar, multi-year plans and most utility executives in the U.S. have no intention to shift strategy based on a change of views in Washington D.C. A recent Reuters survey of 32 utility company executives received 25 responses. Eighty percent of those responding said they had no plans to go back to a coal strategy.

Big business is also driving the transition away from coal. Every year more Fortune 500 companies announce ambitious goals for sustainability and a strong preference for a reliable, low-cost power supply without emissions. Many companies have already pledged to power themselves with 100 percent renewable energy, including Apple, BMW, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, IKEA, Johnson Johnson, Proctor and Gamble, Nestle, Walmart, Bank of America, Coca Cola, General Motors, Google, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Nike, Unilever, and Wells Fargo.

Even the coal industry knows that false promises can’t revive coal jobs. Coal executive Robert Murray of Murray Energy, for example, vocally supports rollback of clean air and clean water protections. After Trump’s executive order and pandering to coal industry workers, Massey cautioned:  “I suggest he temper his expectations. Those are my exact words. He cannot bring [jobs] back.”

As the wind industry tops 100,000 workers and the solar industry grows to 260,000 U.S. jobs in 2016—and costs in both industries continue to fall—it‘s hard to maintain the illusion that jobs in coal can ever rebound.

Fresh Energy is committed to speeding up a just and practical transition away from coal. As part of that transition, fair treatment and real opportunities for coal communities and the people who live and work there should be the priority over empty promises.

 

Fresh Energy recognizes that our readers are concerned about federal actions and their impacts on Minnesota. We will provide regular insights on key issues – and what we can and must do at the state and regional level to continue the transition to a clean energy economy. Check our April Capitol update  for the latest on Fresh Energy’s work at the Minnesota legislature.

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