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4 signs that Trump’s furious efforts to save coal are futile

Coal is losing in Texas, in the US, in the world.

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Moves To Repeal Clean Power Plan Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

The Trump administration may be internally divided about many things, but it is absolutely united around one goal: supporting the US coal industry. “We have ended the war on American energy -- and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal,” President Trump said in his State of the Union address. “We are now an exporter of energy to the world.”

It is a goal the administration has pursued with uncharacteristic focus and discipline. On this policy — maybe only on this policy — there is a consistent message and a consistent plan of action, across departments and agencies.

At the Department of Energy, Rick Perry tried and failed to engineer a ham-handed intervention into energy markets to boost coal and nuclear. At the Department of Interior, Ryan Zinke is shrinking national monuments to allow coal mines to be built closer to them. At the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt is repealing the Clean Power Plan (Obama’s carbon regulations on power plants) and seeking the weakest possible replacement. The list goes on.

(On this theme, read Mike Grunwald’s great story in Politico Magazine about Trump’s love affair with coal.)

The irony is that this goal — the one goal around which this otherwise feckless administration is actually able to organize — is deeply and irrevocably futile. If you can look past all the venality and mendacity involved, it’s almost poignant.

All the momentum is in the other direction. To wit: An October report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that “the share of US electricity coming from coal fell from 51 percent in 2008 to 31 percent in 2016 — an unprecedented change.”

coal retirements (UCS)

There are still hundreds of plants in operation in the US, producing roughly a third of US power, but one in four of those plants is slated to retire or shift to natural gas, and another 17 percent beyond that are uneconomic, running only by virtue of being shielded from competition. As Department of Energy data shows, after a brief bump last year, US coal has resumed its inexorable decline.

New symbols of that decline are coming at such a torrid pace these days that they are getting difficult to keep up with — new policies, new milestones, new reports, all pointing in the same direction. Here are four, just from the past month or so.

1) Half the US coal fleet is now gonersville

In October, the Texas utility Luminant (owned by Vistra Energy) announced the retirement of two coal plants — Sandow Power Plant and Big Brown Power Plant — by early 2018. The reasoning was simple, and familiar: They just can’t compete with cheap natural gas and renewables.

With that announcement, a milestone was reached: More than half of the total 2010 US coal fleet has retired or set a firm retirement date.

2) The most effective anti-coal campaign has been recharged with significant new funding

The 2010 fleet is the baseline used by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to track its progress in shutting down coal plants (2010 is when the campaign started).

As of today, it is halfway done: 266 down, 264 to go.

Accomplishing that much crucially involved more than $100 million in donations from famous rich guy Michael Bloomberg. And guess what? The day after Pruitt proposed to repeal the CPP, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that it would give the campaign another $64 million.

Bloomberg Global Business Forum Held In New York
It’s the good rich versus the bad rich. The rest of us are spectators.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Beyond Coal has quietly produced the largest tangible outcomes of any environmental campaign in my lifetime. One key to its success has been that it not only took Bloomberg’s money but also adopted some of his relentless business discipline. It is working methodically, from a comprehensive spreadsheet of plants, each plant with its own description, its own identified weaknesses, and its own timeline for retirement.

It identifies plants that are already uneconomic, or teetering on the edge, held up by patronage from state politicians and misguided regulations, and campaigns against those plants with tactics customized to local circumstances. Sometimes it takes the argument to public utility commissioners. Sometimes it works to generate political resistance from affected communities. Sometimes it sues. Sometimes its arguments are economic, sometimes about public health, sometimes about land and water — or some mixture. All the critiques are true; different ones are appropriate for different times and places. (Grunwald also had a great story on Beyond Coal.)

This discipline and flexibility has made the campaign a coal-closing machine, and with a fresh $64 million in its coffers — and with so many ripe targets — it is not going to slow down.

3) Wind is about to surpass coal in Texas, the freest of free energy markets

If recently announced coal retirements go through and the pace of wind energy construction continues at the expected rate, wind energy capacity could surpass coal capacity in Texas as early as this year.

This is of special significance because Texas is one of America’s biggest self-contained energy markets and also probably the closest thing the country has to a “free market” in electricity. Power is procured entirely through competitive bidding. Texas doesn’t even have capacity markets, which pay power plants to stay open in case of emergency. If capacity gets tight in Texas, the price of power rises — it’s a pure market signal.

So it’s symbolically redolent that, as this excellent piece from a group of UT Austin scholars explains, cheap natural gas and renewables are driving coal steadily out of the “bid stack.”

A report last month from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) examined seven aging coal plants in Texas and concluded that “the coal-fired electricity industry in Texas is in decline and unlikely to recover in the face of rising competition from other energy sources.”

Texas is not exactly run by tree huggers. Its legislature is packed with climate deniers. It fought against the Clean Power Plan just as fiercely as any conservative state. The steady decline of coal in Texas has nothing to do with emissions or climate change and everything to do with relentless market discipline.

4) Companies, cities, states, and countries around the world are swearing off coal

Around the world, coal capacity is being squeezed by two trends: the falling number of new plants being deployed and the accelerating number of retirements. (Here’s a post digging into those trends in China, where hundreds of planned coal plants have been canceled in the past few years.) The sagging fortunes of coal have led a growing number of companies and political entities to give up on it entirely.

Another recent report from Greenpeace International and Coalswarm (two organizations that have been tireless in tracking global coal plants) examines that growing list of coal exiteers (a new term I just made up). The results are pretty startling.

The report boasts a giant collection of profiles of political entities — cities, states, provinces, and countries — with key statistics on their coal plants and coal plans. Out of that collection, five have completely phased out coal power since 2014 and 18 more have announced a coal phaseout by 2030 or sooner.

That list includes the UK, France, and Canada, along with six other European Union countries, along with the capital cities of both China and India, along with California and Massachusetts. (Germany has said no coal by 2050 but is under pressure to move up that date.)

Meanwhile, out of the 1,675 companies that owned or developed coal plants since 2010, more than a quarter (448) have bailed on the coal power business entirely, canceling coal plant proposals and shutting down old plants. According to the report, that represents an exodus of $432 billion in capital and the capacity equivalent of 370 large coal power plants.

Coal is increasingly seen for what it is: a dirty necessity in some places, but nothing anyone would choose if they could avoid it. To be free of coal is becoming a mark of modernity.

Trump and Pruitt are fighting a doomed rear-guard action

I don’t think another coal plant will ever be built in the US. New coal plants, with modern pollution controls, are simply not competitive with natural gas and renewables (much less efficiency).

Trump and his administration, in this area as in so many others, are engaged in a rear-guard battle. They are scrabbling to keep uncompetitive coal plants open and running, but as we saw with Perry’s bonkers bid to blow up energy markets, there’s just no way to do that without forcefully intervening and subsidizing them (which is not a stable long-term business plan).

Pruitt is starting a long, shady bid to overturn the never-implemented Clean Power Plan, but the US is on the verge of meeting the CPP targets regardless, 10 years early, mainly because (you guessed it) uneconomic coal plants are shutting down.

There’s a shrinking customer base for coal, so no one is going to want the monument-adjacent land Zinke is offering for mining, any more than they want the dirt-cheap leases of public land he’s been offering for mining.

In short, bad policy could mildly slow coal’s decline, good policy could radically accelerate it, but no policy could stop or reverse it, short of nationalizing the energy sector. Coal’s “natural” rate of decline may not be fast enough to meet long-term US carbon goals — for that, it will need a policy boost — but it is fast enough to render Trump’s effort utterly futile.

Trump can make big promises to miners. He can hold photo ops with them. He can promise to end the “war” in the State of the Union speech. But he can’t save coal. The best he can do is to let it pollute just a little bit more on its way out the door.

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