The Utterly Pointless War on Coal

Preventing the use of coal resources hurts the U.S. in many ways.

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The Obama administration's war on coal not only runs counter to global energy trends. It actually threatens to jeopardize U.S. global competitiveness and the prospects for American energy independence.

As has been said many times, the United States is "the Saudi Arabia of coal." The proven reserves can be used to fuel the country's base load power needs for decades to come as far as the generation of electricity is concerned. The potential also exists for this country to become one of the world's major exporters of this most basic of fossil fuels, save for the radical environmentalists who are standing in the way.

Concerns about so-called greenhouse gases and "global warming" will not stop the rest of the world from employing coal as an energy source. The theory that the consumption of carbon-based energy is producing changes in the global climate remains just that: a theory. Nevertheless the industrial planners and ivory tower academics who hold sway over Obama administration environmental policy are determined to remove it from the U.S. domestic energy mix and, if possible, to block its use around the world.

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

It's a fool's errand. As Energy Trends Insider reported at the end of 2012, the International Energy Agency forecasts that coal will overtake oil as the world's fuel source of choice by around the start of the next decade or, at the latest, by 2022.

"The boost in coal use is due to extreme growth in emerging markets like China and India, countries that require cheap fuel sources for electricity production in order to support their quickly growing infrastructures and populations," the ETI reported. "At current rates of growth, the IEA says that it expects that coal consumption will rise to 4.32 billion tons of oil equivalent versus 4.4 billion tons of oil per year worldwide" by the middle of the current decade, even with the Obama administration standing in the way

The steps the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking that will essentially force power companies to close their coal-fired generating plants, while politically popular among the greens whose support is so important to Obama, is an anti-technology move of the first order. Under previous administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, there were plenty of incentives to use technology to find ways to burn coal cleaner, everything from the use of advanced scrubbers to experiments in carbon sequestration. A premium was also placed on energy efficiency, the rationale for which was, as former U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman liked to say, "the most abundant source of new energy available anywhere in the world is that which is being wasted each and every day." By shutting down the coal-based power industry, Obama is putting America on the sidelines in the search for what may be the energy technology breakthrough of the first part of this century.

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

The country that develops the technology to use coal more efficiently, to make it burn even cleaner, will own the energy marketplace of the future. The U.S. is one of few countries that is both reliant on coal and has the capital and intellectual infrastructure necessary to actually develop a technology that works on a commercial scale. The people in China and India and elsewhere who need coal to heat their homes, power their businesses and keep the lights on are not going to be deterred by unproven concerns about global climate change. The countries that have the time and economic power to entertain such a luxury are those that are fully developed like the United States.

As the world becomes more reliant on coal, the United States and other developed countries will have to lessen their reliance on fossil fuels in order to meet any global targets for carbon emissions on which the Obama administration may eventually sign off.

The war on coal is a loser, here at home and abroad. It denies the United States the ability to make use of an abundant domestic energy source while doing nothing to curtail its consumption in the global marketplace. Rather than using less coal, the U.S. should be using more, with an eye toward making all the technological advances necessary to burn it even more cleanly than it burns today. It can be done – but only if the incentives are right.

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