Updated: May 31
“We’ve ended the war on beautiful clean coal. And it’s just been announced that a second brand-new coal mine where they’re going to take out clean coal, meaning they’re taking out coal, they’re gonna clean it, is opening in the state of Pennsylvania.” - Donald Trump, 2017
The Dirtiest Fuel
Coal has been called the dirtiest of fossil fuels for a reason. In addition to the carbon that is emitted when coal burns, the coal mining process also results in the emission of methane and other toxins. The good news is that coal is no longer the top source of electricity generation in the United States. Since 2015, natural gas has held that title, with coal dropping from providing 48% of America’s electricity in 2008 to 30% in 2015 to only 23% today. The bad news is that natural gas comes with its own environmental hazards.
Why is it so cheap?
Until recently, supporters of coal could argue that coal was necessary because it was so cheap. That’s no longer the case. A 2019 study found that renewable energy was cheaper than 75% of coal-fired power plants in the United States. By 2030, experts predict that renewables will be cheaper than coal everywhere. As of right now, renewables are cheaper than coal in all major markets, including the United States, China, Russia, and India.
The U.S. spends nearly $4 billion dollars per year on coal subsidies, but even more important are the externalities that come from mining and burning coal, externalities which aren’t included in coal’s nominal price. A Harvard study measuring the full environmental and health impact of coal, from the mining stage to the combustion stage, found that American public spends half a trillion dollars on coal. These hidden costs include everything from black lung disease to the impact of mountaintop removal (a process as destructive as it sounds, whereby mining companies simply destroy the top of a mountain in order to mine for coal).
The Coal Lobby
The real costs of coal may be high, but the coal lobby has the power to make sure that Americans keep paying them. In 2019, the coal lobby spent more than $7 million dollars on lobbying, and has a staff of 78 registered lobbyists, 55 of whom have previously worked for the government. And though he no longer is among the 78, one coal lobbyist of note is Andrew Wheeler, the current director of the EPA. Before taking up his position, Wheeler spent nearly a decade as a coal lobbyist at the firm Faegre Baker Daniels.
Why the Coal Lobby Can’t Save Coal
Despite the dozens of well-connected lobbyists and the millions that the coal industry spends on lobbying, coal is dying. In the past three years the coal industry has lost nearly one thousand jobs. The percentage of electricity that comes from coal continues to decline year after year, most of it made up by natural gas and renewables. Natural gas has been especially important in coal’s demise. The shale gas revolution of the past decade has generated cheap (and relatively cleaner) energy and created millions of jobs. This is not entirely welcome news. Shale gas still emits carbon dioxide, and the method by which it is extracted can contaminate local water supplies. The method by which shale gas is extracted, fracking, has also been linked to an increase in earthquakes.
Why haven’t renewables filled the gap?
In the race to succeed coal, natural gas has been the clear winner, but a look at their political contributions shows that the oil and gas industry has a massive advantage over renewables. In the 2018 election cycle, the oil and gas industry spent $86 million, while the renewable sector spent only $4.8 million. And while President Trump has mocked wind energy for its supposed shortcomings, he has also bragged about the success of natural gas and even taken credit for the natural gas boom that long preceded his presidency. It doesn’t hurt matters that the bulk of political contributions from the oil and gas industry have gone to Republicans.