It’s Not the Free Market that is Killing Coal

A pile of coal in New Haven, West Virginia, October 30, 2009.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

These days, the pundits are offering a lot of different reasons why America’s coal industry is faltering: Natural gas is taking the place of coal; Demand in China has slowed; A warm El Nino winter has meant less power use. The list goes on.

However, we never hear much about the big elephant in the room— the Obama Administration’s deliberate efforts to strangle the nation’s coal sector.

President Obama came into office with a well-expressed desire to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants. In a 2008 interview he explained, “If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them, because they’re gonna be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.” However, he added a hopeful caveat: “If technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it. That I think is the right approach.”

Unfortunately, the president never followed through on the possibility of clean coal. And that’s a shame because the technology is there.

America’s coal fleet already utilizes 15 different mechanisms to scrub emissions. And carbon capture technology is currently in development. But the administration has simply bypassed carbon storage in favor of heavy-handed mandates to rapidly cut carbon dioxide. And so, despite his comments in the same 2008 interview, when he was “opposed to us saying at the outset here are the winners that we’re picking,” it does indeed look like the president has been hell-bent on eliminating coal from day one.

This would explain the recent double-speak of the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Clinton blundered in March, saying, “We’re going to put a lot of coal workers and coal companies out of business.” It’s possible that she was indeed referring to existing Obama Administration policies aimed at transitioning to “renewable” energy. But in the same exchange, Clinton also said, “Now, we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels.” Thus, Clinton is peddling the same agenda as the president, and with the same child-like zeal to see what will happen when the nation buys a lot of shiny new solar panels and wind turbines.

The simple fact is that the Obama Administration has already taken very successful aim at coal.

The president’s Clean Power Plan aims to eliminate 40 percent of America’s coal fleet in order to achieve a theoretical 0.02 degree Celsius reduction in global temperatures by 2100. The Stream Protection Rule could be extended to the elimination of half of existing U.S. coal mines. And, the recently announced leasing moratorium could simply lock future federal coal reserves underground.

Any wonder that coal has seen better days?

It’s too simplistic to blame “market forces” for the evisceration of coal, particularly when the Obama Administration’s policies are so extreme that even the Supreme Court recently issued a stay on the Clean Power Plan. Unfortunately, many activists openly gloat about the “death of coal,” even as Ms. Clinton feigns sympathy for displaced coal workers.

We know that the president is pleased with his actions, as demonstrated by his boastful posture during December’s climate conference in Paris. And Clinton isn’t really offering anything different for the coming years. Her solution to the plight of coal country is a $30 billion aid package that would provide benefits and retraining for displaced workers.

Not surprisingly, the coal industry has rejected such a handout, questioning instead why the focus shouldn’t be on maintaining a workhorse industry that provides affordable power for millions of Americans. If President Obama had followed up on his 2008 suggestion of carbon capture advancement, the landscape of American coal might already face a radically different future, and one more suited to sustaining workers and energy production without federal assistance.

It’s a cynical notion to bewail the plight of coal communities while actively working for their destruction. Clinton and her ilk should know better, and thankfully much of the nation sees through such shoddy deceptions. Americans have a stake in securing reliable energy for the future, and pushing coal off the table isn’t a sensible path.

Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant, and a former commissioner on the Missouri Public Service Commission.


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