Today’s political environment for Illinois coal producers is hauntingly similar to that of the 1990s as an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty prevail. While the cause of it might not be the same, the threats and consequences today are much graver for the industry, the U.S. consumer and those in poverty-stricken countries.
Back then an amendment to the Clean Air Act changed the landscape of the coal industry. That amendment increased restrictions on sulfur dioxide emissions compelling Midwest utilities to switch from high sulfur Illinois coal to low sulfur Western coal.
As a result, Illinois’ coal industry was eviscerated with the number of coal miners dropping from more than 10,000 in 1990 to about 5,700 by 1995. Production fell from 61.6 million tons to a low of 31.1 million tons.
This decline negatively impacted economies in coal-producing regions and many still haven’t recovered. Look at Southern Illinois where unemployment rates in Perry and Franklin counties – at one time two of the state’s top coal producers – still linger at 12 percent and 12.7 percent respectively.
The good news is that the coal industry did survive. Mining in Illinois has had a slight comeback in the past several years, with production from the state increasing to more than 47 million tons in 2013. It has also seen a rebound in employment. However, there are forces, led by President Obama and environmentalists, who are again on the attack and aiming for coal’s complete demise.
The president, who already said while campaigning in 2008 that any company attempting to build a new coal-fired power plant would be bankrupted by greenhouse gas regulation, has arbitrarily ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to set stricter standards on carbon dioxide emissions at existing plants. This came soon after Congress rejected his call for a CO2 cap-and-trade system.
These regulations, promulgated through the EPA, combined with lower natural gas prices, created market uncertainty among some coal users who opted to either shutter plants or switch to natural gas.
Groups like the Sierra Club are in the midst of full-throttle assaults on the coal industry. They are employing tactics to stop new coal plants from being built and close existing plants. They are using the legal system to stall the permitting process and prevent coal exports to developing nations.
This anti-coal movement is spurred by a notion that coal and the CO2 (which comprises .04 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere) it produces is the leading cause of man-made climate change. The president has already declared that the issue is settled, which is troubling in its own right.
In fact, we are in the midst of a 15-year cooling period that the advocates of man-made climate change cannot fully explain. Their computer models, which predict doom if the world doesn’t stop producing CO2, have failed. These models haven’t come close to accurately reflecting global temperatures over this period.
It’s foolish to believe that a U.S. energy policy can exist that completely eliminates coal. Coal accounts for 39 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. and the Energy Information Agency projects that it should continue to play an important role in our energy mix for at least the next 35 years. This is because coal is the most plentiful, affordable and reliable source of electricity in the world.
While renewables, wind and solar power, have a place in the mix along with oil, natural gas and nuclear, the enormity of our energy needs dwarfs renewables’ potential.
Coal accounted for 1.6 trillion kilowatt-hours of the 4 trillion kWh of electricity produced in 2013. Solar and wind accounted for only 0.12 trillion kWh of our nation’s needs. Further, the average cost of producing power from coal was 7.6 cents a kWh as opposed to 38.0 cents a kWh from the heavily-subsidized renewables.
Replacing all coal with renewables to power this country, at the aforementioned economics, would cost the average household an additional $10,000 annually. With prices in other sectors such as food, health care and durable goods moving higher, a stable cost for energy has never been more imperative.
The debate is not over. Coal is the most plentiful, affordable, and reliable source of electricity in the world and is vitally important to civilization. It has always been a necessary part of the energy mix and remains so, for both the United States and the rest of the world.