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Tina Casey headshot

In Futile Attempt to Remain Relevant, U.S. Tries to Sell Coal Stocks to Developing Countries

By Tina Casey

Now that the U.S. is literally the only nation on Earth to exclude itself from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Trump administration's support for coal really sticks out like a sore thumb. Last week's climate talks in Bonn were a case in point. The Department of Energy was tasked with making the case for coal before a global gathering of energy and policy experts. Rather than addressing real world conditions today, the agency only offered a "zombie" argument unearthed from a 20th century energy landscape that has gone away forever.

The zombie argument for coal rises again

The Washington Post's Dino Grandoni has a good rundown of the goings-on at the Bonn climate talks.

White House energy policy adviser George David Banks was tasked with delivering the coal message to the world, at an event titled "The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation." This is what he came up with:

“This panel is controversial only if we chose to bury our heads in the sand,” Banks told the crowd in Bonn, per The New York Times.


“We need to lift 1 billion-plus people out of energy poverty,” Banks said.

If that "energy poverty" line sounds familiar, you may be thinking of current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. As the former CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson shepherded the company into the shale gas boom. He made liberal use of the "energy poverty" argument to help ensure that his company could grow by selling fossil fuels into developing economies.

However, the rapidly falling cost of solar and wind energy has been putting a crimp in those plans. Africa, for example, has become a hotspot for clean power, including small scale, distributed renewable energy generation.

Grandoni apparently had no trouble finding experts who recognized that the "energy poverty" line is badly outdated.

He cites Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, who "called the U.S. talking points 'zombie arguments from the 1990s and 2000s.'" And they didn't work then either.

Grandoni also notes that back in 2005, then-President George W. Bush scuttled the Kyoto climate pact with this explanation:

'The best way to create opportunity and alleviate poverty is through economic growth. As their economies grow, they are using more energy.'

Then there's Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who observed that "the cost of renewables has fallen dramatically over the last five to 10 years.”

Whither coal?

The Trump administration could have saved face by taking a quick look at the Financial Times before going to bat for coal. Back in September, the newspaper produced an in-depth analysis on the future of coal, under the somewhat ominous heading "Coal hits a plateau" and the subheading "Latest projections suggest that global consumption has reached its peak."

The analysis leads off by observing that the US. Energy Information Administration anticipates that coal consumption will be stuck on a long, slowly sloping plateau for the foreseeable future.

However, that projection is based on a reference case that does not take unforeseen developments into account. The Financial Times points out that the "plateau" scenario is less likely than a more dramatic shift in fortune for coal:

Of course, as discussed here last week, no one should put too much faith in any long-term energy projections. The revolutions in shale oil and gas and in renewable power over the past decade have been vivid demonstrations of the uncertainties inherent to markets and technological progress.

Although there has been a short-term upsurge in coal consumption, The Financial Times busts that bubble:
Carbon Tracker Initiative, the think-tank that works on climate change and finance, suggested that any signs of life in the US coal industry were likely to be shortlived. It published an analysis arguing that in the next few years it would be “the exception rather than the rule” for it to be cheaper for US power companies to keep old coal-fired plants running, rather than building new gas-fired or renewable generation.

That's an interesting observation, considering that the Trump administration is taking steps to ensure that outdated, uneconomical coal power plants stay in business -- with ratepayers footing the bill.

The Department of Energy is the agency charged with crafting new protections for outdated coal power plants, leveraging a new "grid study" ordered by Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

However, even Secretary Perry has seen the writing on the wall. Although he regularly voices the Trump line on energy policy, Perry has also aggressively championed his agency's renewable energy mission.

In the latest development, Perry dumped responsibility for implementing new coal power plant protections into the lap of FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

It's also instructive that Perry declined to defend coal in Bonn, nor did any Energy Department staffers make the news in that regard (George David Banks is an appointee of the White House Economic Council).

For that matter, on November 16 -- right in the middle of the Bonn talks -- the Energy Department announced a massive new hydropower transmission project that will help wean chilly New England states off fossil fuels.

Image: Navajo Generating Station/flickr.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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