Coal can still play important role with right policy
IF PRESIDENT-ELECT Donald Trump is true to his campaign promise to “unleash an energy revolution,” fossil fuels, particularly coal, could begin to see something of a revival in the United States. Such a revival would be a boost for our members in field construction, coal mining, railroads and heavy-haul truck production.
A new energy policy could also help our brothers and sisters at the United Mine Workers of America as well as other building trades that also work on coal-fired plants and in transportation and other energy-related areas.
Boilermakers certainly will be prepared to help the energy industry adapt to new policies, whether that means building high-efficiency coal-fired plants or upgrading existing plants to use carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). Boilermakers will also be ready to bring low-emission technologies, as they become available, to energy-intensive industries like oil refining, cement-making, aluminum smelting, steel-making, and chemical and other manufacturing.
However, we cannot simply return to the way things were a dozen or so years ago. Too much has changed. A decade ago, the Boilermakers and our tripartite alliance partners were anticipating the construction of 100 new coal-fired plants. That number dwindled to near zero due to a combination of factors: the Great Recession of 2008, rising global concerns over climate change, overly-stringent EPA regulations, legal challenges by radical environmental groups, a glut of cheap natural gas due to fracking and a stagnating demand for electricity.
Those developments have combined to strangle the U.S. coal industry. Coal’s market share in U.S. energy generation has shrunk from about 50 percent in 2005 to roughly one-third today. Peabody, the world’s largest private sector coal company, filed for bankruptcy this spring. Arch Coal, the second largest U.S. coal producer, filed in January. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 11,000 coal mining jobs were lost from March 2015 to March 2016 alone.
There can still be a promising future for coal, but it will require a forward-looking and fair energy policy that does not play favorites with fuel sources.
We must level the playing field for coal
THIS COUNTRY NEEDS and deserves a clear and coherent energy policy that does not discriminate against particular energy sources but instead seeks to make the best, most efficient and lowest-emitting use of each.
Although President Obama once promoted an “all of the above” strategy, he allowed extreme environmental groups to hijack his energy policy, which contributed to coal’s decline and the loss of tens of thousands of good blue collar jobs.
Federal energy subsidies have tilted heavily in favor of wind and solar power, with the support of both parties in Congress as well as the Obama administration. In December 2015, Congress voted to extend two generous policy incentives promoting renewables: the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC) and the Business Energy Investment Tax Credit (ITC). These incentives give renewables an unfair advantage over coal energy and CCUS.
In 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) issued a report measuring the value of subsidies and incentives for various energy sources. The report showed that in 2013 renewables received $13.2 billion in support while coal received $1.1 billion. It is no wonder that coal’s prospects have been so diminished.
Fossil fuels are not going away
DESPITE CALLS FROM extremists in the Green Movement to “leave it in the ground,” fossil fuels remain the primary energy source in the world. According to the EIA, 80 percent of global energy comes from oil, natural gas and coal.
The EIA projects that energy consumption will grow by 56 percent between 2010 and 2040, with most of that growth coming from developing economies like those of China and India. Furthermore, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (primarily from fossil fuels) are expected to increase by 46 percent by the year 2040.
Given the continued reliance on fossil fuels, it seems obvious, at least to us, that the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is through carbon capture, use and storage. And we are not alone in this conclusion. The International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have estimated that meeting climate mitigation goals without the use of CCUS would increase the cost as much as 70% to 138%.
A sound U.S. energy policy will ramp up investment in CCUS so that it truly becomes commercially available and can be retrofitted to existing power plants and other industrial facilities as well as installed with new construction.
We believe that once CCUS technology becomes economically feasible, it should be made available throughout the world. Ideally, we need a global partnership to fund, develop and distribute the technology. That will require cooperation with other nations and possibly within the existing United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
We must remain involved in global climate talks
OUR PATH FORWARD in any new energy policy must take into account the reality that climate change exists and to some degree mankind contributes to it. We can’t simply ignore the evidence, but neither should we buy into the hysteria surrounding the issue — or accept policy decisions that needlessly destroy jobs and wreck our economy.
Under the auspices of the UNFCCC, the world has moved steadily forward to address man-made greenhouse gas emissions and to develop strategies to mitigate climate change effects. An initial treaty was signed by 145 countries in 1982.
In late 2015, nearly 200 nations met in Paris to sign a new agreement. At that meeting, known as COP 21 (Conference of the Parties, 21st year), nations agreed to keep the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius or less. Most of the participating nations made non-binding commitments to curb their greenhouse gas emissions.
As this column is being written, COP 22 is taking place in Marrakech, Morocco, with the aim of determining how best to implement the Paris Agreement.
The momentum to address climate change is real. It exists at the highest levels of government as well as the boardrooms of major corporations. It would be wrong for the world’s leading economy, and one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, to abdicate leadership in the quest to find solutions.
Rather than leaving the table, we should collaborate with other countries on solutions that have a realistic chance of working and that will not destroy entire industries and cost tens of thousands of jobs.
We are at an energy crossroads
RESETTING OUR NATIONAL energy policy is critical to Boilermaker jobs and the jobs of many other workers, union and nonunion. Communities have been devastated by closed coal mines and shuttered power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency has seemed callous and indifferent to the harm its regulations have caused to working people. Clearly, there has been a backlash against those in power who have precipitated and supported these anti-coal regulations.
To be fair, some in the Obama Department of Energy understand the vital importance of the fossil fuel industry and support the development of CCUS technology. There has been progress with DOE’s assistance, and we hope that continues at a greater scale.
It is important for our members and indeed for this nation to return to an “all of the above” strategy that maximizes the best use of every energy source we have available. For fossil fuels, CCUS holds out great promise.
President-elect Trump would do well to incorporate an “all of the above” strategy, to relax onerous and unfair EPA regulations impacting coal, to ramp up investment in CCUS and to remain engaged in global climate change efforts.
The Boilermakers are ready and willing to participate in this process.