King Coal Is Abdicating Its Throne

By JOHN BUTERBAUGH

China is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, but its rate of growth is slowing down. In the past few decades, especially since 2000, China’s growing energy consumption has made a huge impact on the environment. Generating 80% of China’s electricity, coal has allowed China to develop at the rate that it has. However, it has also caused significant problems. Beijing’s smog is 40 times higher than is deemed safe; urban dwellers certainly don’t want to go outside without a mask. As a result, China’s government seeks ways to get people to switch from coal-fired stoves to electric ones. Untreated coal releases 10 times more pollutants than electric power plants. However, only 10% of Beijing’s population has made the switch. Why the lack of action? The government and private enterprises make money by selling land to real estate developers who then provide housing to peasants and migrants. These new residents use a lot of coal. Coal in China has gotten cheaper, but electricity hasn’t.

According to the EIA, coal production in the U.S. has dropped 10% just this past year and is now at a 30-year-low, and coal producers have lost 76% of their value. While coal generates the plurality of America’s electricity (39% of it to be precise), that number will decline as natural gas and renewable energy sources become cheaper. Coal companies may blame Obama for their quandary. Their miners fear losing their often six-figure salaries as coal mines continue to close in Kentucky. These men say that Obama is no friend of coal. Yes, Obama has favored natural gas and renewable energy over coal, but Mr. Obama’s role in bringing down coal is minimal. Coal is facing competitors that are taking away its business.

Back in China, 1,000 coal mines are scheduled to close and coal consumption is set to drop. China is looking to use more nuclear and natural gas to reduce carbon emissions. The planned decrease in demand for American coal in China hurts American coal even more. More importantly, natural gas and renewable energy are the biggest culprits in the death of coal. Increasingly common hydraulic fracturing (or simply fracking) is making it easier to access once inaccessible natural gas from underground. Natural gas usage has increased 20% since 2009, and prices have dropped so much that the Coal Commonwealth of Kentucky is less able to afford its own coal.

There are still some things that keep coal alive. Federal coal is a deal — it only makes up one-third of reserves, but it constitutes 41% of coal production. That’s because the government leases out public land to coal companies for a very low royalty rate. This has cost American taxpayers $30 billion in revenue. President Obama has stated he wants to increase the royalty rate to discourage coal and oil production.

With the slow death of coal, a new leader must emerge. Any time a “regime change” occurs, the new leader will face more scrutiny. Natural gas producers hope to become that leader. There are some benefits to natural gas such as that it is more energy efficient and releases half as much CO2 as coal. It generates more electricity than renewable sources like solar, wind, or biomass.

However, fracking on public land for oil and gas has caused a great deal of methane emissions (not to mention the water pollution concerns and mini-earthquakes). Making up 80% of natural gas, methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, more so than carbon dioxide. As such, release of methane during fracking has the same climate impact as 34 coal-fired power plants. To reduce methane emissions, companies conduct a process called flaring in which methane is burned to become less impactful carbon dioxide.

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