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August 24, 2012
Dallas Morning News

About one train per hour. That’s the target loading rate for the massive silos, conveyors and hoppers at the North Antelope Rochelle Mine in Wyoming, the most productive coal mine in the world. And on a cool, nearly windless day in late March, Scott Durgin, a regional vice president for Peabody Energy, was happy.

Standing in the mine’s dispatch office, Durgin pointed to a flat-panel display showing a list of trains that had recently passed through. It was exactly 12 noon, according to the clock on the wall, and since midnight, the mine had loaded 11 trains, each carrying about 16,000 tons of coal. I asked Durgin how long Peabody could continue mining in the region. Easily for another five decades, he replied: “There’s no end to the coal here.”

The scale and productivity of the mine are difficult to imagine. It produces about three tons of coal per second. But despite its staggering output, the North Antelope Rochelle Mine — along with the other 1,300 coal mines operating in the U.S. — is being threatened by the Obama administration. On March 27, just two days before my visit to the mine, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal that would, if enacted, outlaw the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States. The EPA’s motives are clear: It believes that these plants, by emitting carbon dioxide in profusion, contribute to global warming.

There’s no denying that coal has earned its reputation as a relatively dirty fuel. But those concerned about CO{-2} emissions and climate change should realize that the administration’s attack on coal is little more than a token gesture. The rest of the world will continue to burn coal, and lots of it. Reducing domestic coal use may force Americans to pay higher prices for electricity, but it will have almost no effect on global emissions.

Coal has been an essential fuel for electricity production ever since 1882, when Thomas Edison used it in the first central power plant, at 255-57 Pearl St. in lower Manhattan. Edison’s technological breakthroughs at Pearl Street — the list includes the incandescent bulb, the safety fuse, the light socket, the generator, and insulated wiring — led to a tsunami of electrification that continues to this day. By 1890, just eight years after Edison began the revolution, there were 1,000 central power stations in the United States, and new ones were being added at a frenzied pace. All of them burned coal.

Of course, Edison wasn’t the first to exploit coal. The first instance of coal use probably occurred in China some 3,000 years ago. But coal became far more controversial during the Industrial Revolution, when its use in factories made some cities nearly uninhabitable. On one particularly nasty day in London in 1812, a combination of coal smoke and fog became so dense that, according to one report, “for the greater part of the day it was impossible to read or write at a window without artificial light. Persons in the streets could scarcely be seen in the forenoon at two yards distance.” Some of those same problems are now plaguing China. The New York Times recently reported that in Datong, known as the City of Coal, the air pollution on some winter days is so bad that “even during the daytime, people drive with their lights on.”

Air pollution is only part of the coal industry’s environmental and human toll. The industry damages the surface of the earth through strip mines, mountaintop removal and ash ponds at power plants. In addition, thousands of workers die each year in the world’s coal mines — about 2,000 last year in China alone.

But the media and policymakers are more focused on the amount of carbon dioxide that coal-fired power plants emit. In a 2009 opinion piece for The Guardian, climate scientist James Hansen declared coal “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet,” adding, for good measure, that “the trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.” Hansen’s anti-coal jihad has gained plenty of allies. Powerful environmental groups like the Sierra Club — which, by the way, is getting $50 million from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to help fund its “beyond coal” campaign — are pushing for a total ban on coal-fired electricity generation in the United States.

The EPA’s proposed rule banning new coal-fired electricity generation results directly from the fear of climate change. Pointing out that greenhouse gases “endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations,” the rule would cap the amount of CO{-2} that new fossil-fueled electricity generation units can emit at 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour. That would rule out coal-fired units, which emit about 1,800. (Natural-gas-fired units emit about 800.) The EPA claims that it has the authority to regulate CO{-2} under the Clean Air Act and therefore doesn’t need congressional approval to impose the ban. But don’t expect the EPA to enact a final rule on coal plants until after the election. And if (when) it does, you can be certain litigation will follow.

But even if the EPA and the Obama administration succeed in prohibiting new coal-fired electricity generation in the United States, they will leave global coal demand and CO{-2} emissions almost unchanged. Over the past decade, American coal consumption fell by 9 percent, but global coal consumption soared, growing by about the same amount as the growth in oil, natural gas, nuclear and hydropower combined.

Proponents of wind and solar energy frequently point out that renewables are seeing rapid growth. That’s true when looked at on a percentage basis. Between 2002 and 2011, nonhydro renewables (wind, solar and biomass) grew by 220 percent. Over that same period, global coal consumption increased by a more modest 52 percent. But those percentages don’t explain the scale involved. Sure, nonhydro renewables grew by 220 percent, but the nominal increase was only about 2.7 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Meanwhile, coal consumption jumped by almost 10 times as much, nearly 26 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.

Coal’s dominance helps explain why global CO{-2} emissions rose by 30.1 percent between 2002 and 2011. Meanwhile, thanks largely to cheap natural gas, U.S. CO{-2} emissions are plummeting. On Aug. 1, the Energy Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, reported that during the first three months of the year, U.S. emissions were the lowest in 20 years. And here’s another fact that you won’t hear from groups like Greenpeace or the Natural Resources Defense Council: Over the past decade, even if U.S. emissions had dropped to zero, global carbon-dioxide emissions still would have increased.

Global coal consumption will keep rising because electricity consumption is soaring. Between 1985 and 2011, global electricity production increased by about 450 terawatt-hours — roughly the amount of electricity that Brazil consumes — per year. And the International Energy Agency expects electricity use to keep growing by about one Brazil per year through 2035.

Coal is helping Brazil — and numerous other countries — meet their electricity needs for this reason: It’s cheap, thanks to the fact that deposits are abundant, widely dispersed, easily mined and not controlled by any OPEC-like cartels. The EIA reports that from 1999 through 2010, coal was consistently the cheapest source of fossil fuel for electricity generators — usually costing about half as much per Btu as the next-cheapest fuel, natural gas.

Many entrepreneurs have tried and failed to beat coal on price. For instance, in 2007, Google trumpeted its plans to develop renewable-energy sources that would be even cheaper than coal. “We are optimistic this can be done in years, not decades,” said Larry Page, the Internet search giant’s co-founder. The company’s effort lasted less than four years. In November 2011, Google quietly abandoned its quest, saying merely that “other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level.”

The best example of the world’s growing hunger for electricity is Vietnam, where electricity use increased by 227 percent between 2001 and 2010 — faster than in any other country. This insatiable demand for electricity is why, during the same period, Vietnam’s demand for coal increased by 175 percent — again, faster than in any other country. Such heavy reliance on coal gave Vietnam an additional distinction: the world’s fastest-growing carbon dioxide emissions between 2001 and 2010. What can the Obama administration say to Vietnam about curbing this apparent threat to the climate? Very little. The average annual income of Vietnam’s 90 million residents is $1,200.

Or consider China, which has about 650,000 megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation capacity, more than twice as much as America’s 317,000. China is also planning to build another 273,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity. The growth in China’s CO{-2} emissions between 2001 and 2010 was 123 percent, a rate only slightly lower than first-place Vietnam’s.

We needn’t look only at developing countries like Vietnam and China to see the essentiality of coal. In the wake of last year’s accident at the Fukushima nuclear facility, Japan shut down all its reactors, and Germany — which has the biggest economy in Europe — is rushing to follow suit. Though renewable-energy projects are the darling of European politicians, German utilities are placing their bets on coal. According to an April report by Germany’s National Association of Energy and Water, nearly 14,000 of the 36,000 megawatts of new electricity generation capacity being planned for Germany will probably be provided by coal-fired facilities.

Indeed, just a few days ago, the German utility RWE began generating electricity at a 2,200-megawatt coal plant near Cologne. And that plant provides an excellent lesson in scale, particularly when compared with Germany’s much-lauded solar-power sector. Germany has more solar capacity than any other country: 25,000 megawatts. Last year, Germany’s solar panels produced about 18 terawatt-hours (that’s 18 trillion watt-hours) of electricity. And yet, RWE’s new coal plant, which has less than a 10th as much capacity as Germany’s solar sector, will, by itself, produce about 16 terawatt-hours of electricity.

All the major forecasting entities — the EIA, the IEA and the energy company BP — agree that global demand for coal will keep rising. Moreover, all three predict that for decades to come, coal will maintain a major share of the world’s energy consumption. EIA projects coal will provide 27 percent of all global energy by 2035; IEA predicts 30 percent by 2035; and BP expects 28 percent by 2030. Those projections are a testament to the protracted nature of energy transitions. Remember that way back in 1970, coal’s share of the global energy mix was 30 percent.

Low cost isn’t the only reason for coal’s dominance. Another is power density, the amount of energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area of land. Let’s return to the North Antelope Rochelle Mine, which produces about 109 million tons of low-sulfur coal per year. Once you account for the energy lost during the conversion of coal to electricity, the mine yields the energy equivalent of about 300,000 barrels of oil per day. Solar and wind energy production, meanwhile, provided the United States with 333,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per day in 2011 — the equivalent of 203,000 barrels of oil.

The point isn’t merely that a single mine produces about 50 percent more energy on an average day than all the country’s solar panels and wind turbines combined. It’s that the mine covers just 80 square miles, while domestic wind projects now cover about 9,400 square miles — an area approximately the size of Maryland. The low power density of renewable-energy projects in general, and of solar and wind in particular, will prevent them from taking a large share of the electricity market away from coal.

Likelier competitors are natural gas and nuclear, which have a number of advantages over coal. Both are able to produce large quantities of reliable electricity, and both have lower CO{-2} emissions. Natural-gas use here and abroad will undoubtedly rise in the decades ahead; supplies of the cleanest of the hydrocarbons are growing rapidly around the world, thanks to the shale revolution and continuing exploration successes in places like Africa, the Mediterranean and Asia. Nuclear energy will also see significant growth.

But even if natural gas and nuclear are able to ramp up dramatically, it will be extremely difficult for them to match the amount of energy now being derived from coal. Global coal consumption now totals about 75 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Global natural-gas consumption is about 58 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. For natural gas to replace coal completely, gas production would have to more than double. Making that happen would require decades of sustained and expensive exploration and production. Nuclear energy offers the best near- and long-term option for cutting carbon-dioxide emissions, but it’s hampered by huge start-up costs, and many countries simply don’t have the infrastructure or human capital needed to support the nuclear industry.

Since the days of Edison, the United States has relied on abundant supplies of coal to sustain its economy and to produce electricity — the currency of modernity. But there’s no natural reason for that dependence to end: America’s coal deposits contain 900 billion barrels of oil equivalent, nearly as much as the 1 trillion barrels of proved oil reserves held by OPEC. At current rates of production, domestic coal reserves will last another 200 years. The only obstacle is the EPA, which by trying to shut down domestic coal-fired generation, will only encourage domestic coal producers to ship more of their product to overseas markets.

We don’t have to adore operations like the North Antelope Rochelle Mine or coal-fired generators. But given the world’s insatiable demand for electricity — and all the wealth- and health-enhancing opportunities that come with cheap, abundant, reliable supplies of electricity — it’s obvious that coal will be powering the global economy for many decades to come.

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