War on Coal: Presidential Race Rhetoric Heating Up, and Believe It Or Not, So Are Coal Exports

It seems wherever you look in this election coverage frenzy of the past few months, you hear about the future of the American coal industry. Republicans across the country have assailed President Obama for launching a “War on Coal,” including advertisements with the most over-the-top voice acting ever to reach airwaves. Former Governor Mitt Romney has joined the chorus, standing with a group of coal miners in Beallsville, Ohio in August to promote jobs in the coal industry (though the miners were told that attending the Romney event was mandatory and unpaid). The Obama campaign, for its part, has attacked Romney for being a false friend to the coal industry, while Obama has trumpeted his support for “clean coal” in his energy plan.

In the heat of campaign season, supercharged rhetoric has diverted attention from the actual market forces at play. Coal electricity generation is down — dropping 18% in the past year, according to the Energy Information Administration. But the reasons for this reduction are the energy revolution happening in the natural gas sector and turnover in our ancient coal fleet. Natural gas plants are cheaper to operate than coal power plants, and with the price of natural gas dropping, we’re seeing the expected market fluctuations at work. Natural gas is projected to account for 60% of new electricity capacity in the next 25 years, compared to 7%for coal which takes fourth place behind wind and solar.

The dramatic increase in natural gas and renewable electricity generation also comes at an inflection point for our coal power plant fleet. The median age of U.S. coal plants is 46 years, and many plants are reaching the end of their life cycle. With about 30 gigawatts of coal plant retirements already announced by 2016, and more than twice that amount reaching retirement-age by 2035, operators are turning to electricity sources projected to drop in price in the future — natural gas and renewables like wind and solar. As a Brattle Group report highlights, recent coal plant closure projections are “more sensitive to future market conditions than to regulations, particularly natural gas prices.”

Coal will continue to be an important part of our energy portfolio and in the larger economy. In fact, while certain areas in West Virginia and Pennsylvania have gone through coal mining layoffs, overall domestic coal mining employment has risen. In Ohio, the coal mining industry has grown 10 percent since 2008. In western states, like Wyoming, the growth is even higher. There’s no question that market realities are changing the places we’re getting coal. As coal generated electricity in this country drops, exports to Pacific Rim countries will continue to rise. The year 2012 is projected to be the biggest year for coal exports of all time — but most of that coal will come from the Mountain West, closer to the Pacific shipping ports.

The coal industry has been the heart of rural communities in Appalachia for generations. The people of those communities deserve our respect for contributing to the American engine for decades. But it does everyone a disservice to turn these communities into political sideshows, instead of making the kind of investments that will provide new opportunities and industries. 

One thing is clear: in a fiery election season, the “War on Coal” is just more hot air.