Mickey Glantz. October 30, 2012.
“Is Coal losing its share of America’s Energy Mix?”
There is a ‘war on coal,” so says the coal industry, its representatives and those vulnerable communities dependent on the coal industry. According to the supporters of the coal industry, a main perpetrator of the war on coal has been President Obama and the US EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. Truth is, they would be against anyone imposing restrictions on the coal industry in favor of the environment. Political concern nationally as well as worldwide has been mounting about climate change and increasing carbon dioxide emissions resulting from fossil fuel use. But is the industry’s vitriolic attacks on the President and his (or anyone’s) EPA as regulator-in-chief of the Nation’s environmental quality way off the mark?
The question I have in mind is the following: Is the coal industry in the early decades of the 21st century capable to compete with other emerging energy sources, and I don’t just mean competing with renewables, which, by the way, are also under attack from the coal industry? Coal is at war with the natural gas industry.
The threat to coal comes from new technologies that have are innovative ways to tap traditional sources of energy, especially natural gas. That is what the coal industry has to fear, not government (EPA) regulation. Technological innovations in the natural gas industry have provided shortcuts to success, such as “fracking.” Though admittedly controversial with respects to its environmental impacts on, for example, groundwater at the local level, fracking has broken a proverbial barrier in natural gas exploration and exploitation.
Traditionally, exploration focused on locating potential sources on natural gas, escape routes for the gas and traps that created reservoirs for the gas. New technologies that enabled new techniques such as horizontal drilling now make it possible for companies to target, drill and produce directly from the source rock for the natural gas, referred to in the industry as the “hydro-carbon kitchen.” No longer is it necessary to locate the trapped gas thanks to fracking.
But fracking too has it challengers concerned in large measure about groundwater contamination.
Back to the coal industry! Advertising about what it calls “clean coal” just doesn’t cut it. To the coal industry clean coal is an attempt to fool the public into believing it is clean when burned; clean here is used as an adjective, that is, the coal is clean burning. To me the word “clean” in clean coal is used as a command: as in “clean the coal, dammit.”
To the general public industry’s use of the phrase ‘clean coal’ is an obvious case of false advertising. Coal is not a clean fuel as far as Mother Earth is concerned. The industry’s supporters are engaging in a rear guard firefight based on a failure to read the tea leaves, trying to fight against legitimate concerns about the continued dependence on dirty coal as a major source on national energy, rather than really providing a clean coal to burn.
What the coal industry needs are technological breakthroughs that enable it to honestly profess that they produce and burn “clean coal” in a way that does not degrade atmospheric quality or the land surface. By failing to leapfrog from the 1800s into the 21st century by developing new ways of thinking as well as new ways of doing with the existing myriad of coal-related environmental regulations, the coal industry will remain under increasing economic (free market, competitive) pressure from other increasingly more environmentally friendly energy sources, especially natural gas. The coal industry will likely watch its share of the country’s energy market continue to creep toward lower percentages.
“Circling the wagons” against the onslaught of other sources of energy will not be a viable strategy for coal. Innovation and out-of-the-box thinking could save the industry, maybe even grow it. The Natural gas community did it. But does the coal industry have the foresight to rise to the occasion? Time will tell, and in the not-so-distant future.