Politics & Policy

The Coal Train Chugs Along

Coal-fueled power plant in Cheshire, Oh.
Global coal use rises with the global demand for electricity.

The gulf between the hard realities of the global energy market and the Obama administration’s energy policies grows wider by the day.

On Wednesday, Heather Zichal, the White House coordinator for energy and climate change, told a group of reporters that Obama, knowing that climate change is “a legacy issue,” will soon issue new rules to limit carbon-dioxide emissions from electricity-generation plants. “After all that we’ve done, after all that historic progress in the first four years, we are well poised to take meaningful action for the second term,” Zichal said.

Obama’s looming skein of regulations is being promoted just one week after BP issued its latest Statistical Review of World Energy, which provides yet more proof of two indisputable facts: Even without more regulations from the White House or the EPA, the U.S. continues to lead the world in reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. And while the U.S. may be cutting its coal use (and, therefore, its carbon-dioxide emissions), the rest of the world continues to binge on coal.

Last year, the U.S. reduced its emissions by 3.9 percent. That reduction was larger than that of any other major industrialized country. In contrast, China’s carbon-dioxide output soared by 6 percent and India’s by 6.9 percent, while Brazil’s rose by 2.5 percent and Mexico’s by 4.3 percent.

U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions are falling largely because of a huge drop in coal consumption, which was down a whopping 11.9 percent in 2012. Domestic coal use is plummeting for several reasons. Among them are increasing regulatory burdens, on everything from coal mining to coal-ash management, and the Obama administration’s threat of new regulations specifically on carbon-dioxide emissions. (Slow economic growth has also been a factor.)

The biggest factor, though, in America’s success in cutting emissions has been the shale gale. A tsunami of natural-gas production has been unleashed in recent years thanks to continuing improvements in extended-reach horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Domestic natural-gas production was up 4.7 percent last year, to a record 65.7 billion cubic feet per day. That increase in production has led to cheaper natural gas, and that cheap gas is displacing coal at the power plant. (Increasingly, it’s also displacing oil as motor fuel, but that’s another story.)

The shale gale — and the resulting drop in domestic carbon-dioxide emissions — is a remarkable story. Thanks to market forces, not government regulation, the U.S. is reducing its emissions faster than Europe is, even though the European Union has imposed a myriad of regulations aimed at cutting them. Indeed, last year carbon-dioxide emissions rose by 1.3 percent in Germany, the EU’s largest economy.

While American utilities are switching from coal to gas, electricity generators around the world are swarming to the coal market. The BP data show that between 2002 and 2012, global coal consumption grew by the equivalent of about 26 million barrels of oil per day. That’s nearly as much as the growth in oil, natural gas, hydro power, and nuclear power combined.

In 2012, global coal use increased by the equivalent of 2 million barrels of oil per day. That was more than three times the growth of non-hydro renewables (solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal), which were up by 600,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day.

Global coal use will continue to rise because global demand for electricity continues to rise, and that demand is being met largely with coal. In April, the International Energy Agency projected that global coal consumption will increase by about 12 million barrels of oil equivalent per day by 2017. If that occurs, coal use could surpass oil use in the share of global energy. That’s a stunning development. The last time coal consumption in the U.S. was greater than oil consumption was 1949.

Some of the coal being burned overseas is coal that is not being burned here. In March, the U.S. set a record for coal exports in a month, 13.6 million tons. Indeed, on the same day that Zichal was talking about Obama’s legacy on climate issues, the Energy Information Administration released a report showing that U.S. coal exports are likely to set another record this year, after setting a record of nearly 126 million tons in 2012. The EIA pointed to increased Asian demand as a major reason for the rise in U.S. coal exports.

The fundamental problem with Obama’s approach to carbon-dioxide emissions is the idea that the U.S. can solve the problem. No matter what the U.S. does, emissions will continue to soar, because so many people in the developing world want to come out of the dark and into the bright lights of modernity. Proof of that can be seen in yet one more number that’s easily found in the BP data: Over the past decade, global carbon-dioxide emissions would have risen by 2.6 billion tons even if U.S. emissions had gone to zero.

During her chat with reporters, Zichal claimed that the White House is embarking on an effort to “turn this issue from a red-state, blue-state issue to an American issue.” She went on to say that the administration is launching “a sustained focus on depoliticizing the climate on climate policy.”

No matter what Zichal might say, climate policy will always be political, because so much money is at stake. What’s troubling about the Obama administration’s approach to carbon-dioxide issues, however, isn’t the presence of politics. It’s the absence of math.

— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.


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