April 5, 2012
National Review

So now we know that when President Obama says he wants an “all of the above” strategy for energy, “the above” doesn’t include the energy source in which America has the biggest advantage over the rest of the world: coal.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new regulation that, if enacted, will effectively outlaw the building of new coal-fired electricity-generation plants. In its proposed rule — which, by the way, is 257 pages long – the agency says it is using a “common-sense approach to reducing CO2 and other [greenhouse-gas] emissions, which by causing climate change, pose a serious threat to public health and welfare.”

The EPA’s proposal defies common sense in several ways. I will focus on two of them: the essentiality of coal both here in the U.S. and around the world, and the negligible effect that this move will have on global carbon-dioxide emissions.

Coal has been an essential fuel for electricity production in America ever since Thomas Edison used it in the first central power plant on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan in 1882. Coal provides about 45 percent of domestic electricity, with natural gas providing about 24 percent and nuclear 20 percent. The balance comes from hydroelectric power and other renewables.

While it’s true that coal has been losing market share in the U.S. to natural gas over the last few years, regulators need to keep a diversified portfolio of fuels in the electricity-generation mix to help avoid unexpected price shocks from reductions in supply. And that’s where coal’s value becomes apparent: The U.S. has about 237 billion tons of coal reserves — about 28 percent of the world’s known deposits. That’s 241 years of supply at current rates of domestic consumption.

Since one ton of coal contains about as much energy as three barrels of oil, U.S. coal reserves total about 711 billion barrels of oil equivalent.

America isn’t the Saudi Arabia of coal; it’s the entire Middle East of coal. U.S. coal deposits contain about the same amount of energy as the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates combined.

And yet now, in the name of doing something — anything — about climate change, the Obama administration wants to keep much of that coal locked underground by outlawing new coal-fired power plants. That’s not going to work. Proof of that can be seen by looking at the latest coal-export data. Between 2005 and 2011, U.S. coal exports increased by more than 60 percent tonearly 80 million tons. And those exports are almost certain to continue rising. Peabody Energy, the giant St. Louis–based coal producer, is planning to export some of the coal it produces from its Wyoming mines to China. The company is already shipping some of its domestically produced coal to India.

The Obama administration wants to ignore the rapid growth in the global coal market. It also wants the public to believe that outlawing new coal-fired power plants won’t cost anything. In its press release, the EPA said that it “does not project additional cost for industry to comply with this standard.”

But let’s move on to the larger issue of coal use and carbon-dioxide emissions. That’s where the inanity of the EPA’s proposal becomes apparent. Between 2001 and 2010, domestic coal consumption fell by 5 percent. Over that same time period, global coal consumption soared, growing by about the same amount as oil, natural gas, and nuclear combinedCoal use increased by about the equivalent of 23 million barrels of oil. Oil consumption grew by 10 million barrels per day, gas increased by the equivalent of 12.9 million barrels of oil, and nuclear rose by the equivalent of 510,000 barrels.

Over the last decade, largely because of increased coal consumption, global carbon-dioxide emissions rose by 28.5 percent. Over that same decade, U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions fell by 1.7 percent. And here’s a stubborn fact that the EPA and its allies on the Green Left simply refuse to acknowledge: Over the past decade, even if U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions had gone to zero, global carbon-dioxide emissions still would have increased.

Why? The answer is simple. The rest of the world wants what we take for granted: cheap, abundant, reliable electricity. Demand for electricity is a key reason that China’s carbon-dioxide emissions jumped by 123 percent over the past decade. Over that same time period, Africa’s emissions jumped by 30 percent, Asia’s by 44 percent, and the Middle East’s by 57 percent.

The simple truth is that banning new coal power plants in the U.S. won’t make a whit of difference when it comes to global carbon-dioxide emissions. It is a de facto carbon tax on American consumers that the Obama administration seeks to enact by bureaucratic fiat, rather than have an open and honest debate about carbon-dioxide emissions and the viability of an overt carbon tax. On the legal front, the EPA is claiming that it has the authority to make this move because greenhouse gases “endanger both public health and the public welfare of current and future generations.”

That may be true. It may be false. Regardless, the proper place to address such an important issue — one that involves many billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs — is in Congress, not at the EPA.

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