The 'War on Coal' Is More Like a Lifeline

Coal companies need to innovate or they're going to disappear.

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Cleaning up carbon pollution from America's power plants is a lifeline for the coal industry, not a death knell.

With new carbon pollution standards for future and existing power plants rightfully on the way, the coal industry has decided to fight for the status quo that includes reduced demand and job losses instead of innovating for a prosperous and profitable future. King Coal is shrinking before our eyes due to market forces created by cheap and abundant natural gas. Instead of competing, they're giving up.

But, why?

Even without Environmental Protection Agency safeguards against carbon pollution, U.S. coal production is expected to drop to a 20-year low. In addition, the Chinese market for coal, once considered the saving grace for U.S. coal interests, is projected to shrink in 2016, according to analyses by Citibank and Bernstein Research. With market share decreasing and competition fierce, coal is facing tough times. But it doesn't have to be that way.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

In the 40 years since the Clean Air Act was passed, and even before that, industry after industry has rebelled against federal safety and public health standards only to emerge stronger when they engineer their way to safer, cleaner products. The EPA is often a scapegoat and is the straw man that draws the most ire from the coal industry.

In the case of carbon pollution, objections are focused on EPA identifying carbon capture and storage as an established technology. The industry, despite a years-long effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on a public education campaign touting clean coal, now says the technology isn't proven and shouldn't serve as the basis for the EPA's scientifically grounded standards for carbon pollution.

U.S. coal interests should drop the defeatism and embrace the lifeline that EPA is tossing them. New carbon pollution standards can drive innovation and American ingenuity can find a way. You only need to look at the diesel engine as an example. When then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner pushed for tougher emissions protections for diesel engines in the mid-1990s, the manufacturers revolted. But once the standards were in place, companies like Siemens built better, faster, cleaner and more efficient engines. American ingenuity did find a way. 

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a Carbon Tax a Good Idea?]

If coal interests invest the resources and the effort to find cleaner, safer ways to burn coal, by capturing carbon pollution or developing another means, they'll have reestablished the market for coal fired electricity. And, maybe, with new technology creating a demand opportunity for real "clean coal" the industry can expand its job base. We know this: if coal doesn't innovate, the industry will eventually evaporate.

If anything, the history of environmental protections, from MTBE to lead in gasoline to CFCs, has shown that we don't have to choose between a healthy economy and our own health. In fact, common sense and cost effective standards have been good for the economy and health. According to the EPA, since 1970, every $1 in investment in compliance with Clean Air Act standards has produced $4 to $8 in economic benefits. So it can be done.

Most recently, coal interests predicted the end of affordable electricity and the elimination of coal jobs when EPA set safeguards against mercury and other toxic pollution. That didn't happen. Now they call standards limiting previously uncontrolled carbon pollution a "war on coal." It's not. It's a lifeline. Grab it, or sink.