The US Coal Industry is Under Regulatory Assault

Published October 1, 2015

The coal industry is beset by regulatory slings and arrows threatening to cripple this once vibrant industry. These assaults, however well-intentioned some may be, won’t do anything to reduce air pollution or change the world’s climate.

In a 2008 San Francisco Chronicle editorial board interview, presidential candidate Barack Obama remarked, “If somebody wants to build a coal-fired power plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them. Under my plan electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket.”

That’s one promise he has kept. Since assuming the presidency, Obama has waged a sustained war on coal.

The Obama administration’s misguided focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent a theorized climate change catastrophe is forcing the closing of coal-fired power plants and the coal mines that supply their fuel. The president’s climate obsession is bad for the economy, threatens electric power reliability and affordability, and will do nothing to prevent climate change, an impossible goal.

The coal mining industry has been contracting in fits and starts for a couple of decades. New mining techniques and technologies, combined with natural gas supplanting coal as a source of fuel for new electric power plants, have caused a loss of jobs in the coal country.

The industry’s gradual decline, however, became a steep fall after Obama became president. According to Energy Information Administration (EIA) data, coal supplied 48 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2007, and 39 percent in 2014.

A report by the American Action Forum (AAF) details the devastating impact Environmental Protection Agency regulations have had on the coal mining industry. As a result of Obama’s anti-coal policies, 30.7 percent of the coal miners in Kentucky have lost their jobs since 2008, and mining in Wyoming suffered a 2.8 percent employment decline.

In the early 2000s, high natural gas prices brought a resurgence in interest in coal-fired power plants. Numerous older plants slated for retirement were refurbished and relicensed, and 151 new coal-fired plants were proposed or began construction between 2000 and 2007. As natural gas prices fell in the wake of the fracking revolution, some of those projects were canceled, but what really caused the industry to hit the brakes was Obama’s war on coal. Of the 151 plants under construction or planned in 2008, only 22 have come online. By contrast, 104 projects were canceled or placed on hold, with the remaining 25 still in the planning stage.

A 2011 National Energy Technology Laboratory report projected zero new coal-fired electric plants would come online after 2018.

New and existing regulations have been made more stringent by Obama and have caused the premature closure of dozens of U.S. coal-fired power plants. EIA reports between 2009 and 2014, 265 coal-fired power units, at dozens of power plants, ceased operations. Those closures took more than 28 gigawatts of electricity offline, enough to power approximately 12.6 million homes.

AAF estimates the closures have cost 39,684 jobs at coal-fired electric power plants, a 28.8 percent reduction in total employment.

Another 60 GW of coal power plant capacity will be retired by 2020 because of existing regulations – enough electricity generating capacity to power about 27 million homes. Other analysts say the toll could be as high as 72 GW because federal agencies have in the past dramatically underestimated the number of power plants closed and electricity taken offline due to regulatory restrictions.

Seventy-two gigawatts is enough to power every home west of the Mississippi River except for households in Texas.

EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan and ozone regulations would prematurely shutter four times as many coal-fired power plants as have already been taken offline as a result of the Obama administration’s restrictions.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the agency charged with ensuring the reliability of the nation’s electric power system, warns the Clean Power Plan will result in early power plant retirements representing more than 134 GW of generation, which the organization says will threaten the nation’s electric power grid.

How are consumers faring in this war on coal? Despite low natural gas prices and historically low inflation, electric power prices have risen 15 percent since Obama became president. That is a bitter irony: He has consistently claimed he wants to help the poor and middle-income Americans, yet higher energy prices hurt the poor and those on fixed incomes the most.

And all of this pain is for exactly nothing. New clean coal technologies keep these plants from polluting the air with soot, and the closing of coal-fired power plants has no effect at all on Earth’s temperature.

Unfortunately, Obama is not about to let the facts sway him, if history is any guide. It will take a new president and Congress working together to reverse fortunes of the coal industry and electric power consumers.

[Originally published at the Herald-Dispatch]