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Inside A Southern Coal Conference: Pep Rallies And Fears Of An Industry's Demise

KINGSPORT, Tenn. — They came from states like Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee to rally around coal as U.S. coal use continues to tumble. But Joe Giove III, with the U.S. Department of Energy, was having nothing of the doom and gloom talk about an industry on the slide. This was the 40th year that the Southern States Energy Board met jointly with the Virginia coal industry, and a two-day conference of hand-wringing and searching for a new or renewed path for coal in a carbon-constrained world was under way. Giove was there to sell the use and necessity of coal, and that's what he did, relaying stories of how coal had become a misunderstood underdog and how losing too much coal threatens people's lives. "One of the biggest things we face now, it's censorship," Giove, the Trump administration's director of coal business operations, told members of the energy board this week. Too many people think "we're beyond coal," or "we're not doing coal anymore," so that means  "we don't want to hear what you have to say" about coal. Children are being taught that "coal is evil," he said, that "green is good, fossil is bad—that's all they've heard."


Giove described coal as "just a resource" — not mentioning its health-harming pollution and contributions to climate change — and provocatively suggested the nation would have been better off had the Midwest been plunged into a widespread power failure amid sub zero temperatures during a severe cold snap last winter. The polar vortex event was seen as a test for managing a grid that relies increasingly on renewable energy, and less on coal. "The good news is nothing did happen," Giove said. "The grid didn't go down. But the bad news is, the grid didn't go down." That has allowed environmental advocates "to go on working on getting rid of coal," he said.

The Mood Inside: Not Nearly So Bright

Burning coal is a powerful source of greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet. Last fall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that carbon dioxide emissions need to reach net zero by around 2050 to keep global warming in check, and that getting there will mean stopping the burning of fossil fuels. Yet as domestic coal continues to decline, outcompeted economically by natural gas and increasingly by wind and solar, state and mining officials from the South gathered around a surprisingly optimistic theme: embarking on a new era for coal. Giove was among several Trump administration officials there to let them know the president was on their side. But the mood in the convention center wasn't nearly as bright. Part grievance session, part blame-fest, part pep talk and part strategy session on how to tilt federal or state policies to favor coal, with all the recent announcements of governments and utilities planning to shed coal in favor of greener alternatives, and a big new coal bankruptcy filing just last week, this was not a happy gathering. In fact, that energy board session included an on-the-spot anonymous poll of how its participating members view the condition of the coal industry. In a word, they were downbeat.

Three-fourths expected less coal to be mined in the United States in the next five years, and none thought it very likely or even likely that coal jobs would return to even what they were in the 2000s. Setting the tone, the conference opened with a prayer, offered by John Ragan, a Republican and member of the Tennessee General Assembly: "We ask you especially Lord, your blessings on this gathering. We know there are challenges in this industry and this country that only you can solve. We humbly ask for divine guidance."

Coal Has Been Losing Ground

The conference was focused on how to keep coal in the nation's energy mix despite its contributions to global warming and the controversies coal has engendered around mountaintop mining practices and black lung disease. The Southern States Energy Board is comprised of governors and lawmakers from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The board takes policy positions and makes recommendations to local, state and federal governments, and has been involved helping to develop carbon capture and storage technology. Of the 16 states, coal was the most prevalent source of utility-scale electricity generation in 10 of them just a dozen years ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. By 2017, that number had dropped to just four: Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia. Nationally, coal lost more ground last year and is expected to decline even more in 2019, according to the EIA, despite President Trump's promise to revive coal mining. EIA forecasts that the national share of electricity generation from coal will average 24 percent in  2019 and 22 percent in 2020, down from 27 percent in 2018. As recently as 2006, coal was nearly 50 percent of the nation's energy mix.

Coal and Kentucky have been synonymous for generations, yet there was little optimism from Charles Snavely, Kentucky's top energy and environmental regulator and former coal mining executive. He represents Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, chairman of the energy board, and, citing EIA projections, he said he expects coal's downward spiral to continue as even Southern states — historically among larger coal burners — increasingly turn to natural gas and renewable energy. "I am probably painting a more negative picture that most of the speakers at this conference," Snavely conceded. If there's hope, he said, that could be with global demand for what's called metallurgical coal, a type of coal used in the production of steel, potential coal exports to Asia, or new technological breakthroughs on coal burning. He also cited a new draft report, Coal in a New Carbon Age,  from the National Coal Council, an advisory committee to the U.S. Secretary of Energy, that reviews potential new coal uses for chemicals and various products that need carbon.

"We are embarking on coal's new era, but we have to face reality," said J.P. Richardson, chairman of the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance, a mining industry group. Part of that reality is that four of the energy board's states and territories—Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Puerto Rico—are led by governors who are members of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of 24 governors who have committed to work toward achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement, despite Trump's moves to pull the U.S. out of that international accord. "We are seeing more and more cities, states and utilities, in particular, that are moving toward clean energy," said Julie Cerqueira, the executive director of the alliance, who was not at the meeting. "Economically, it just makes sense. Coal is increasingly expensive" and "the clean energy sector produces a lot of jobs."

Dominion's View of the Future Is Low-Carbon

One of those utilities is Virginia-based Dominion Energy, which operates in 18 states and was one of the conference sponsors. Instead of dwelling on coal, one of Dominion's top lobbyists, James Beamer, said the utility plans to cut its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. He highlighted plans for new offshore wind power, for converting factory-scale farm hog waste to methane, and for new solar power. He also said the company is developing a new hydroelectric pump storage facility that will work like a large battery and be powered in part by renewable energy.

Other speakers touted what they considered time-tested attributes of coal as an energy source — its reliability and price, though analysts have found new wind and solar power, bolstered by battery storage,  is cheaper than coal in much of the U.S. now. Wind and solar? It's too intermittent, the coal supporters say, omitting any mention of the growing use of energy storage. Sometimes the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine, they said. Natural gas? It's a national security threat because natural gas plants rely on just-in-time delivery of fuel that could be disrupted by terrorists and doesn't perform as well in the extreme cold, they argued. A speaker from the grid operator PJM, which serves 13 eastern and Midwestern states, acknowledged fuel security is important but said a stress test had found no threats to its grid reliability through at least 2023 as it shifts to more renewable energy and gas and less coal. Kenneth Nemeth, executive director of the energy board, argued that coal-related jobs, security and reliability aren't being factored into decision electric utilities and regulators are making when they allow coal plants to close or approve new power sources. That needs to change, he said. The Trump administration has tried to use those same arguments to bail out coal by suggesting that grid operators be required to buy power from uneconomical coal power plants in the name of national security. So far, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has rejected that idea.

Mini Coal Plants and Carbon Capture?

West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, was there, raising the alarm about the " Green New Deal," an idea supported by some Democrats to launch a 10-year mobilization of investments intended to reach the science-based climate goal of cutting net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero as rapidly as possible. It "gets rid of coal, natural gas and nuclear," she said, even though its supporters have said they have not yet settled on any single strategy. With Donald Trump's agenda, some coal jobs have come back in West Virginia, she said, but she warned of "tough headwinds" in Washington, D.C. Coal advocates at the convention decried federal tax breaks for solar and wind power systems, but Capito said she expects they will keep getting extended because Democrats won't give them up.

Department of Energy officials came to talk about research. They touted a plan to spend as much as $100 million on research and development of a new generation of what they call "near-zero" emission coal-fired power plants, designed to be "flexible, innovative, resilient, small and transformative." They've dubbed that program " Coal FIRST." "Carbon-free fossil energy is closer than you think," said Lou Hrkman, an assistant secretary for the department. These small coal-burning plants could be assembled from modular parts that fit on a flatbed trailer and could be turned on and off quickly, meeting intermittent energy demand, and be equipped with carbon capture, he said. Traci Rodosta, carbon storage technology manager at the Energy Department's National Energy Technology Laboratory, talked about the government's ongoing research path toward safe, underground storage of utility scale carbon dioxide. A slide in her presentation suggested it would not be ready for broad, commercial-scale adoption for 16 more years. "Smaller, flexible coal plants? We have those. They're called natural gas plants. That's the problem," said Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an interview before the conference. Herzog ran an industrial consortium on carbon capture and storage at MIT from 2000 to 2016 and is an expert on the technology. Carbon capture and storage has so far proven to be too expensive for utilities to be willing to invest in it, at least in the United States, without a federal climate policy that would put a price on carbon, he said. That all leaves the coal industry in a precarious position. "Coal depends more on research and development technologies now than any time in the past," said Snavely, the Kentucky regulator. InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment.  Click here for the InsideClimate newsletter.

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