Saturday, July 19, 2008

Facing Coal's Future With Eyes Wide Open -- an Op-Ed by Tom Rodd

Coal is a great fuel in many ways – dirt cheap, powerful, and plentiful. I’ve spent many winter evenings basking in the warmth of Preston County, West Virginia's finest “black gold,” burning in our basement furnace.

But like every other energy source, coal has its costs. One big "negative" for coal is that when you burn coal, the combustion process emits significantly more carbon dioxide (“CO2”) per Btu than for any other fuel. CO2 is the main “greenhouse gas” that causes planetary climate change, also known as “global warming.” For this reason, essentially all policies aimed at controlling climate change involve severely limiting the emission of CO2 from coal burning into the atmosphere.

And so the question arises: what effect will climate change policies have on U.S. and world coal use in coming years? This question is complex and impossible to answer with any certainty, but many smart people are working on it, and there are some tentative answers out there in the economic/scientific world. Given the importance of coal mining to the Appalachian coalfields region, these answers, however uncertain and tentative, should be of intense interest to people in the region, and their friends and neighbors.

A lot of recent research and educated opinion in this area is summarized in a 2007 report by the National Academies of Science, titled “Coal Research and Development,” that was written in response to a U.S. Congressional request. The report is available in its entirety online at

The National Academies report says that under climate change policy scenarios that limit future CO2 emissions, “coal use [in the U.S.] is curtailed significantly and falls below 2004 levels in the most restrictive cases. Coal production in the western states is impacted more severely than eastern coal.” The report says that under one “cap-and-trade” climate change policy scenario studied by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “coal’s share of electricity production declines [from 50% today] to 37 percent in 2020 [with total U.S. coal production just shy of 1 billion tons] and to 22 percent in 2030 [600 million tons total U.S. coal production].”

The National Academies report cites another government-sponsored study from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, showing coal’s contribution to U.S. electricity production under a “cap-and-trade” CO2 limitation policy going from 20 quadrillion Btus in 2004 to 18 quadrillion Btus in 2020, and to 11 quadrillion Btus in 2030. (“Btu” is a measure of energy.)

Other climate change policy scenarios considered by the Laboratory show a somewhat greater role for coal; those scenarios assume success in achieving economically feasible “carbon capture and sequestration” or "CCS" (removing CO2 from the gases that are produced by burning coal, and injecting the CO2 into deep underground wells where it cannot get into the atmosphere.)

What about the effects of climate change policies on future global coal use? The National Academies report discusses several studies looking at this issue. A World Energy Council study projects the effect of climate change policies as reducing global atmospheric emissions from coal combustion to about 5 gigatons of carbon by 2050 -- as opposed to 6 gigatons today. A study by the International Energy Agency projects global coal use by 2050 at 25% greater than 2003 under policies designed to control CO2 emissions; however, if CCS proves infeasible, this increase does not occur.

A European Commission study estimates that global coal use will increase 13% by 2030, if climate change policies are in place. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has presented a model aimed at stabilizing CO2 concentrations at 550 parts per million by 2100 (a level that many scientists believe is too high) in which coal use for the next century is basically unchanged—but only if CCS increases very significantly.

The National Academies report concludes by saying: “Projections show that future coal use depends primarily on the timing and magnitude of potential regulatory limits on CO2 emissions, on the future demand for electricity, on the prices and availability of alternative energy sources for electric power generation, and on the availability of carbon capture and sequestration technology. Over the next 10 to 15 years (until about 2020), coal production and use in the United States are projected to range from about 25 percent above to about 15 percent below 2004 levels, depending on economic conditions and environmental policies. By 2030, the range of projected coal use in the United States broadens considerably, from about 70 percent above to 50 percent below current levels.”

That’s quite a wide range of projections, under a wide range of different assumptions, but at least these figures show what people are talking about, and what's at stake under different scientific, technical, economic, and policy scenarios.

As an example of current proposed "mainstream" U.S. climate change policies relating to coal, here are some recent recommendations from the Pew Center on Climate Change:

“(1) We need to conduct some 10-30 demonstrations, at scale, of commercial-scale coal plants of a variety of configurations capturing and storing their CO2. We also need multiple demonstrations of CO2 injection in a variety of geological formations in a variety of geographic regions across the country.

“(2) We need a national, economy-wide policy such as “cap and trade” that requires greenhouse gas reductions from all sectors, including electric power. Most recent estimates indicate that a price of at least $25 to $30 per ton of CO2 would be needed to drive coal-based electric power plants to install CCS.

“(3) We need a requirement or incentive that will result in demonstrations of CCS at power plants within the next 10-15 years, and we need clear regulations governing injected CO2. Because states have substantial authority over electricity generation and environmental protection, they can play an important role in demonstrating, incentivizing and requiring CCS. However, they are no substitute for a nationally consistent program that promotes CCS for all large sources of emissions.”

Just what should people in the Appalachian coalfields region (and their friends, neighbors, and allies) be doing now, to deal with the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change and climate change policies? Again, there are no certain (or easy) answers to that question.

But one thing is clear: climate change and climate change policies are becoming more and more important in our lives as every day passes. We need to to face these issues today – with our eyes wide open!