The waterfront at Wheeling, West Virginia
The coal-producing U.S. state of West Virginia has grabbed the media spotlight this year, mainly due to the powerful influence of Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin over federal energy policy. The impact appears to have rippled into the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, where U.S. efforts to accelerate the global energy transition have fallen short of expectations. Nevertheless, signs of a breakthrough have begun to emerge.
When is an energy transition not an energy transition?
Critics were quick to jump on the U.S. and other nations that did not sign the pledge. However, in terms of fostering the clean energy transition, the pledge itself is a hollow one.
Media attention has focused mainly on one aspect of the pledge, which calls for nations to help accelerate the energy transition by refusing public financing for new coal power plants overseas.
That is actually not what the pledge calls for. The main focus of the pledge is to steer more financing towards carbon capture technology, in order to reduce carbon emissions from new coal power plants.
The four-part pledge “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition” pledge is careful to define its target for elimination as “unabated” coal power plants, meaning power plants without carbon capture technology. “Our shared vision is to accelerate a transition away from unabated coal power generation,” the pledge reads.
The first item in the pledge calls for nations to scale up “clean power generation,” a loose category that could include coal with carbon capture. The second item underscores that intent by calling for scaling up technologies and policies “to achieve a transition away from unabated coal power generation.”
The pledge also calls for nations to stop issuing new permits for coal power plants within their borders, but it specifies that the ban only applies to unabated coal power plants. It also calls for nations to stop public financing for new coal power plants overseas, but it specifies that the ban applies to “direct government support for unabated international coal-fired power generation.”
The fourth item in the pledge circles back around to the vague “clean energy” category in the first item. It appears to place coal power with carbon capture in the category of a “clean energy” transition that provides support for workers and communities that currently depend on unabated coal jobs.
West Virginia takes center stage in energy transition
The “unabated” loophole looms large in contrast to President Joe Biden’s aggressive posture on climate action. In that respect, perhaps the White House was reluctant to sign onto a pledge that appears to be more of an exercise in greenwashing than an all-out effort to remove coal from the global energy profile.
The U.S. also has yet to sign onto the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which launched during the Trump administration in 2017. As with the Coal to Clean Power Transition pledge, the Alliance accommodates new coal power plants with carbon capture rather than calling for a rapid and absolute ban.
On the other hand, the president’s position on coal power is not the only factor in refusing to sign the new coal pledge. Media attention has focused on Senator Manchin, who has leveraged his deciding vote in the Senate to dial down policies aimed at accelerating the renewable energy transition.
Writing about the new coal pledge for E&E News earlier this week, reporter Benjamin Storrow observed that “the White House’s reluctance to sign the pledge says a lot about coal's continued political influence in the face of declining fortunes.”
“The Biden administration's decision not to sign the coal phaseout pledge comes as Democrats haggle over a budget bill in Congress that would direct billions of dollars in subsidies to clean energy,” Storrow explained. “Finalizing that deal requires securing the vote of Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from coal-dependent West Virginia who holds the swing vote in the Senate.”
Shortcomings in the latest fossil energy pledge…
Attention has focused on the influence of coal because the West Virginia economy has long been reliant on that source of fuel, and part of Senator Manchin’s personal wealth is built on coal. That is only part of the story, though. In recent years West Virginia has also emerged as a leading gas-producing state, and media has taken notice of the senator’s apparently close relationship with ExxonMobil.
Though known more generally as an oil company, ExxonMobil became a leading shale gas investor when the market opened up during the George W. Bush administration.
With that in mind, it is interesting that the White House chose to sign onto the COP26 “Statement on International Public Support for the Clean Energy Transition,” which also launched on November 11. The new statement covers oil and gas as well as coal.
Media attention has focused on the inclusion of all fossil energy as a history-making step in the new statement of support, but the title is misleading. The new statement does not call for banning fossil energy to accelerate renewable energy. It focuses specifically on banning unabated fossil energy, just as the coal pledge does.
…but the renewable energy writing is on the wall
The new fossil energy statement does differ in one key respect. In contrast to the new coal pledge, the fossil energy statement draws attention to the role of public financing in reducing the cost of alternative energy, namely solar and wind.
The statement recognizes “the progress, driven in part by enabling public finance investments, in reducing the costs of clean energy alternatives such as solar and wind power to become cheaper than unabated fossil fuels in almost every region of the world, revolutionizing and transforming energy options and access.”
The statement also takes note of the social and economic risks of continuing to invest in “unabated fossil-related energy projects.”
The natural gas industry has successfully positioned itself as a “cleaner” alternative to coal, so the new pledge does not necessarily place a wedge between Senator Manchin and ExxonMobil. For that matter, the Senator’s relationship with a powerful natural gas stakeholder hints that he himself foresees the end of coal, with or without public policy.
His own constituents seem to agree. Coal jobs have been shrinking for generations and the bleeding continued into the Trump administration, despite the former president’s purported support for coal workers.
Pressure is also mounting for West Virginia to grow its renewable energy sector, especially as other states seize the opportunities offered by low-cost renewable energy. That includes the fossil-friendly state of Texas, which is taking steps to establish a green hydrogen hub. Utah is another state looking to leverage its renewable energy assets to produce green hydrogen.
Earlier this year, the United Mine Workers of America also appeared to see the writing on the wall. The union has come out in support of President Biden’s energy transition plan, while continuing to advocate for preserving existing coal jobs.
The new fossil energy pledge is not quite the history-making step portrayed by the media. However, it does support the bottom-line case for accelerating the energy transition. In effect, it is an open invitation for corporate leaders to step up their efforts to steer their supply chains away from fossil energy and into renewables, as quickly as possible.
Image credit: Pete Chacalos via Pixabay
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.