Dark days ahead for coal

The cost of new emissions rules could give natural gas a big edge. But a hungry world market is ready to take US production.

By Bruce Kennedy Apr 11, 2013 2:18PM

Image: Coal miners (© Digital Vision/SuperStock)Is U.S. coal use becoming less cost-effective? A new study from Duke University suggests it might be, at least domestically.


Researchers at the university's Nicholas School of the Environment say stricter government regulations could make nearly two-thirds of America's coal-fired power plants as costly to operate as plants powered by natural gas.


"Because of the cost of upgrading plants to meet the EPA's pending emissions regulations and its stricter enforcement of current regulations, natural gas plants would become cost-competitive with a majority of coal plants," said Lincoln Pratson, the study's lead author, "even if natural gas becomes more than four times as expensive as coal."


Pratson says the coal industry is much more economically vulnerable than previously thought, given the costs for complying with EPA standards. According to the study, just 9% of U.S. coal-fired plants are currently more expensive to run than an average natural gas facility.


But with the costly new proposed emissions controls the EPA is scheduled to start enforcing by 2016, 56% of U.S. coal plants would be as expensive to run as their natural gas counterparts. And those environmental standards would still weigh on the costs of coal, even if gas prices were to rise significantly.


The Washington Post's Wonkblog quotes a government report from last year that found the owners and operators of older and smaller plants were preparing to retire 27 gigawatts worth of coal-generated power, or around 8.5% of the coal fleet, between 2012 and 2016.


America is home to more than one-quarter of the world's coal supply. About 90% of the coal used in the U.S. goes toward energy production, according to the Institute for Energy Research, and 42% of all electricity generated here is due to coal.


The Duke researchers note that air pollution from the U.S. energy sector has dropped significantly over the past several decades, especially carbon dioxide, "largely due to greater use of natural gas power plants in place of coal plants."


But whether coal declines as a power source, they say, also depends not only on the new EPA regulations but also on a successful transition to natural gas, which will require more funding and construction of the infrastructure needed to transport and store the gas.


And what would happen to all that coal if it's not used here in the U.S.? It will most likely end up exported to nations with insatiable appetites for electricity like Brazil, China and South Korea.


And if that comes to pass, noted Wonkblog's Brad Plumer, the U.S. power plant regulations won't help efforts to reduce global climate change. "After all," he said, "carbon-dioxide that's released by burning coal will heat up the planet no matter where it's burned."


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85Comments
Apr 11, 2013 5:11PM
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I live where coal has been the no.1 economical resource for years; however, now it is no longer "useful" to some of these dictators in our government. Lots of people in this area are losing their jobs due to the cut back in coal use. It will not only affect the coal miners, but the entire companies personnel. This will in-turn affect other companies in the community. Coal has and always be a positive source of energy for the USA.

 

Apr 11, 2013 3:23PM
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trying scare tactics again. here in the northeast, coal is still the least expensive to heat your home. oil sucks, for heat at currerntly 3.66 a gallon, it cost me 800-900 every time I fill up. it takes 180 gallons of oil to equal one ton of coal.. one ton of coal cost aprox. 205 dollars. If I use oil cost for the year is aprox 35-3800 dollars depending on the winter, the same heat for coal, is about 11-1300 dollars. might be a little work, but at least I am oil independent........except for gas for the car,   but we won't go there.
Apr 11, 2013 8:02PM
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Just look at it this way we only have to put up with Obama for 3 more years and he can NEVER RETURN!!!

Also I predict he will go down in history as one of the worst Presidents in modern time.............

Apr 11, 2013 7:39PM
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Obama wants coal out & "green" in - regardless of the facts. His administration will do whatever it can to force the issue. He couldn't care less about poeple suffering: it's all about his screwed-up Marxist-Liberation upbringing.
Apr 11, 2013 9:36PM
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Whoever put the picture in this article doesn't know the difference between a coal mine and a hard-rock mine. The picture is definitely a hard-rock mine probably in central or South America.  We are not all fools despite what MSN thinks!
Apr 11, 2013 8:32PM
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There is one thing Obama is doing that he promised he would do. Is make it so expensive for companies to mine coal That they couldn't. Obama's flying monkeys (officially referred to as M.S.H.A inspectors.) Are the instrument that he is using to close the mining industry down through massive fines and regulations. I myself lost my job in Nov as an underground coal miner due to the feds direct actions. After the fed had investigated a fatal miner operator accident and determined that the equipment was not defective. The mine was not allowed to resume production. No company can remain operational if the strong arm of the law prevents them from producing what ever it is they produce.  People need to investigate what all is made from or with coal. It will amaze you. Something like eliminating the evil mining companies may sound good till you no longer have all the benefits from it. Eliminate mines, oil wells, smoking, and guns. Then we will all be eating rainbow stew and drinking free Bubble-up. By The way the Chicago gun ban is really working well for them!!!! choke, choke, cough, cough. If you do not believe me go to the MSHA.gov and research for yourself. 
Apr 11, 2013 8:10PM
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Obama's using the EPA to destroy a viable source of domestic energy while completely ignoring the fact  that our dependence on foreign energy weakens national security. A poor populace that ultimately will be dependent on the government (North Korea?)is a step toward the fall of the USA. 
Apr 11, 2013 8:45PM
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its ok china will buy all the coal they can produce. they have no EPA and don't give a dam. but its ok to make energy way more expensive for Americans. not like we are struggling already. who cares if electricity prices go up. way to go for the government. yet another helping hand for the people. Thanks. In sure no oil companies had there hand in this.
Apr 11, 2013 8:43PM
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Just some more of that "Change we can believe in" Like it or not
Apr 11, 2013 10:13PM
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This article is just nonsense. Out on the west coast a union (SSA Marine) and an energy corporation are pushing to build super terminals all along the coastline for the export of coal to China, just as the U.S. is cutting back on coal production to conserve the resource for future needs.

 

Coal is already being mined in the Powder River Basin here in the U.S. and shipped via rail to seaports in Vancouver, BC Canada for export to China. The whole proposition has several holes in it. First, the U.S. has already run out of the the "good stuff." Anthracite, the light sweet crude of coal has effectively been all mined out. Second, all that is left is bituminous, which is much less energy rich and offers a greatly reduced BTU yield. Third, there is only a 25-year supply of that in the Powder River Basin if the greed and avarice of these two self-interested parties are allowed to have their way with exporting U.S. coal to China.

 

What the U.S. should be doing is preserving what coal it has left for domestic consumption by future generations, face the fact that coal (like everything else) is a finite resource -- and stop allowing this fantasyland propaganda to be printed.

Apr 12, 2013 12:10AM
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We prefer to stifle our economy by EPA mandates,but yet we sell sulfuric coal around the world to eveyone who has money.WTF? I thought we still breath the same air as a Chinaman?Same as running off the battery makers to Mexico.They just dump into the ocean.You,EPA,are NAZI morons!We give away our economy and weath to Commies,and then we make it nearly impossile for compliance without wrecking an industry.Dumb!Just plain ignorant,and dumb!
Apr 12, 2013 9:46AM
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You freaking idiots, the picture is not even from a coal mine, it's from a hard rock mine.... It makes me wonder how accurate the rest of the article is.... (I'm sure the part about the EPA and their regulations is totally accurate though...) Hey EPA bureaucrats, you realize that the atmosphere circles the planet right? So we are stuck with diesel engines that get no mileage but have clean exhaust at ridiculous prices, higher energy costs, and thousands and thousands of lost jobs in places like West Virginia, Kentucky, Southern Illinois, etc... but the great folks in China can just keep pumping all kinds of crap into the air and doing whatever they damn well please to the global environment.... Okay. Got it. That makes about as much sense the way we allow so many jobs to go there, the way we let them steal patented technology and rebrand it, or the way we allow them to keep a their money pegged to ours so they always have a trade advantage. This freaking government needs to wake the hell up. Quit worrying about how to make all the Mexicans happy and start worrying about America. We used to be a county that built stuff.....
Apr 12, 2013 12:23AM
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go ahead and kill the coal companies and see what happens to your lights you bunch of ****s.
Apr 12, 2013 2:22AM
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So the EPA is making things harder for the Coal industry to compete via restrictions that make Natural

Gas more competitive and ultimately screwing the American comsumers by increasing the cost of

electricity from a less efficient fuel for generation.

Apr 12, 2013 2:13AM
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nobody knows the temperature sensitivity to CO2 concentration, yet we believe the global warming models. How can that be?
Apr 11, 2013 9:27PM
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Big scary headline to get our attention, and then the leader basically tells us; "Never Mind"
Apr 12, 2013 10:05AM
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We have all the resources to have always been 100% energy independent! It is a national disgrace and scandal,that we spend the country into debt,on energy imports.
Apr 12, 2013 10:46AM
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We live in Ohio where 90% of the electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants.  We live in a small, five room house in the country; our electric company is a rural co-op.  There is no natural gas available in this area.  So you heat with propane or electric.  Our house happens not to have a furnace, so the heat is provided by electric baseboard heaters.  Our electric bill has been $217.00 a month year round up to this point.  We got notice two days ago that starting next month, it will be $290.00 a month year round; that's $3,480 per year, for those who are reaching for calculators!  It is very expensive to meet the EPA's demands.  We are retired and will find it hard to come up with that  extra money, but the EPA does not give a damn if we freeze to death, and neither does Obama.  And to make the cheese more binding, he wants to cut our Social Security!  I know there are more efficient ways to heat than baseboard heaters, but we cannot afford to install one.  Anyway, I can't help but feel that after working all my life, I'm being treated like dirt!  Thanks Obama.
Apr 12, 2013 10:59AM
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US govt. must assist power generators using coal to upgrade their plants by low interest loans. The upgrade to clean coal electricity production will help those areas of country that experience high unemployment because of govt. policies that give preference to other energy sources.  We must have a mix of energy,  otherwise we become vulnerable to the geopolitical upheavals we have previouly experienced in regards to energy production. Also nuclear power generation must be in this mix.  I want clean air,  but I don't want to be held hostage to the politics of energy.  We can have affordable and rational energy policy that does not harm the environment or consumers.

Apr 12, 2013 10:47AM
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Just another dying business in this country of liberal idiots!
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