Coal: curbed but not crushed


updated Dec. 29, 2011

For many Christmases to come, we Westerners are likely to have coal in our stockings. Or at least in our power plants. About 45 percent of our electricity is produced by burning coal. And even if our own demand dropped drastically, China is an emerging market for Western coal.

Nonetheless, several factors are putting a dent in coal usage: inexpensive natural gas (which now produces 25 percent of our electricity), rising renewable energy production, and various new regulations to reduce haze and cut other power-plant pollutants.

A new two-pronged rule from the Environmental Protection Agency, which will take effect in two years, could result in the shutting down of about 8 percent of the nation's coal power, including the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington, N.M, according to an Associated Press survey of power-plant operators.

One of the new rules curbs fine-particle emissions for states downwind of polluting power plants. The second sets the first-ever federal standards for emissions of mercury, arsenic, cyanide and other pollutants from power plants. The rules were in the works for more than two decades, thanks to obstruction from utilities over the cost of implementing them; the government says they will save about $90 billion in health care costs, while costing consumers around $10 billion.

Republicans, not surprisingly, bemoan these "job killing" regulations and predict massive blackouts. But in the AP’s survey, at the 60-some coal plants planning to shut down in the near future, none of the plant operators attributed the closure solely to the EPA rules, although some said "it left them with no other choice."

A larger threat to coal-burning is cost -- natural gas remains comparatively cheap, while coal's price has risen about 7 percent per year for the past decade (driven in part by overseas demand), reports Greenwire (subscription required).

A new long-term outlook report from Exxon Mobil predicts that by 2025, natural gas will replace coal as the nation's top power source (coincidentally, Exxon Mobil is also the nation's largest producer of natural gas):

While oil products will remain the most widely used fuels worldwide, overall energy demand will be reshaped by a shift toward less polluting energy sources and huge improvements in energy efficiency in areas such as transportation where more use of hybrid vehicles will help push average new-car fuel economy to nearly 50 miles per gallon by 2040, the report said.

Renewable fuels also will see strong growth, the report said. By 2040, more than 15 percent of the world's electricity will be generated by renewable fuels such as solar, wind, biofuels, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric power. The report projected the fastest-growing alternate fuel source would be wind, which will increase by about 8 percent per year from 2010 to 2040.

It may seem odd for Exxon Mobil to be predicting growth in renewables and reductions in carbon emissions (it was until recently a notorious funder of climate change skeptics). But despite its political leanings, apparently even a huge oil company can read the writing on the wall.

Those non-coal energy sources, of course, each come with their own set of issues (for solar power, it's the footprint on fragile desert lands, for natural gas, the big one is groundwater pollution from fracking). And as gas leasing continues to heat up on Western lands, landowners who own their mineral rights might find it useful to check out this New York Times article describing how to read the fine print on energy-company leases:

“If you’ve never seen a good lease, or any lease, how are you supposed to know what terms to try to get in yours?” said Ron Stamets, a drilling proponent and a Web site developer in Lakewood, Pa., who started a consumer protection Web site,, in 2008 so that he could swap advice with his neighbors as he prepared to sign a gas lease.

Jodi Peterson is High Country News' managing editor.

Coal train image courtesy wsilver on Fotopedia.

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