Scott Pruitt can’t hurt you

October 04, 2017 by Denis Pombriant

It’s garbage time for coal. Garbage time in pro basketball is that point in a game when the outcome is decided despite the fact that there’s still time on the clock. Usually the score is out of reach for the losing team except for a super human effort and probably not even then so the teams trade baskets. You know it’s garbage time because head coaches call every timeout they have left resulting in a fusillade of TV ads and players platoon in and out often with the traditional bench sitters getting meaningless playing time.

The thought pattern of the players is simple. It’s a long season and it’s not worth getting injured in a vainglorious attempt to pull one out of the fire. The starters have already moved on and are thinking about a game they can do something to win—the next game.

That’s about where we are with coal. It was once the go-to energy source but is now being eclipsed by other generating sources that are cleaner and, hard to believe, cheaper. Coal is a zombie. It’s garbage time for coal managed by the EPA and the Trump administration. EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, is doing his best impersonation of a losing NBA coach but unfortunately at his every timeout we’re treated to commercials of pollution, destruction, and unemployment.

So far Pruitt has eliminated or is eliminating rules that would prevent dumping coal mining wastes in streams. He’s imposed a temporary moratorium on new mine leases in the West, and he’s crippled rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants but all of this comes as too little too late to save the coal industry.

Some green advocates aren’t so sure. Many see Pruitt’s rollback of regulations on the coal industry as proof of permanent regression rather than a simple retrograde motion with the promise that sooner or later progress will resume. Moreover, they fail to see the free market’s definitive march away from coal. Here are some indicators of Coal’s long-term direction.

Natural gas, wind, and solar are outcompeting coal on price. Natural gas is largely seen as a bridge from coal to renewables because it burns and can relatively easily replace coal in an existing power plant.

Solar and wind are reaching grid parity, meaning they’re as cheap as coal power sources in many situations which is attractive to anyone who isn’t a coal executive or miner. More than the solar panels you see on suburban roofs, these technologies now have a designation of “industrial grade” when large assemblages of them form. Also the top five states with the highest percentage of renewable electricity generation are, umm, red states—Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota in that order.

An editorial in the New York Times, on September 18, 2017, quotes Chris Beam, head of Appalachian Power, West Virginia’s largest utility saying, “We’re not going to build any more coal plants; that’s not going to happen.” The same editorial quoted Lynn Good, the head of Duke Energy, America’s largest utility saying, “Our strategy will continue to be to drive carbon out of our business.”

But there’s also this, in February, the consortium that owns the Navajo Generating Station, in Page, Arizona, billed as the West’s largest coal-fired power plant, with a capacity of 2,250 MW, announced that it would close the plant in 2019 (decades ahead of its end-of-life). This plant should be a prime candidate for conversion to geothermal steam sourcing. We’re keeping an eye on it.

Employment in coal continues to decline. The US Department of Energy’s (DOE) “US Energy and Employment Report” shows that employment in alternatives is already twice as big as in coal, 373,807 to 160,119. But the same article also notes 398,235 jobs in natural gas and 515,518 in oil. Bioenergy and wind support 130,677 and 101,738 jobs respectively.

A new energy age will have to provide replacement jobs for the old energy paradigm workers and that seems to be happening. This is precisely the point: we’re in a transition process, the time between energy paradigms. It’s a time when you’ll see gains and shifts in both directions and that might concern you. But think of a stock chart, it looks like the teeth of a saw. Sometimes the move is up, sometimes down but the overall direction of all the moves beyond the individual ups and downs is what’s important and that trend is solidly up for alternatives and down for coal.

So next time you feel like despairing over an EPA action that makes no sense, like allowing coal ash dumping into streams, confirm to yourself that it is senseless and then remind yourself about the long term market direction. If that doesn’t work you can also ensure that your own domestic electricity use is coming from alternatives or natural gas generation. Never forget that this is a demand driven market and you can make a difference simply by signing up to use electricity from cleaner sources.


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