18 november 2016

Environmentalists get a dose of good news

Even if Trump throws out Obama's clean power plan, we're already ahead of its targets—and the coal industry will be hard to bring back

By Michael Grunwald, Politico, 11/18/16

Even though President Obama’s historic Clean Power Plan was stayed by the Supreme Court and appears doomed in the Trump Administration, the electric sector is getting so green so fast that it has already met the plan’s 2024 goal for slashing carbon emissions and its 2030 target for reducing coal use, new data show.

The primary cause of the sharp decline in power-plant emissions is clear: Utilities are rapidly abandoning coal for cleaner-burning natural gas and zero-emission renewables. It’s also clear that this shift, driven by rising prices for coal and falling prices for climate-friendlier alternatives, is happening independently of Obama’s controversial climate rules, which were only finalized in August 2015 and then suspended by the Court six months later. Even if President-Elect Trump fulfills his pledge to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, the U.S. is on track to fulfill its pledges under that deal, a glimmer of good news for environmentalists mourning his election.

What is not clear is whether Trump, who has vowed to undo the Clean Power Plan and end Obama’s “war on coal,” can reverse the decline of coal or even slow it down. Trump has called global warming a made-in-China hoax, and the energy section of his transition website reads like an ode to fossil fuels. But since his election, Trump and other pro-coal Republicans, including Senate Majority Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have tried to lower expectations of a coal-country renaissance, acknowledging that coal’s problems extend beyond Obama’s EPA.

Those problems have gotten even more severe this year. An analysis of government energy data provided to POLITICO by the Sierra Club, which has led a national Beyond Coal campaign to try to kill the industry, shows that U.S. power plants are on track to emit 1.76 billion metric tons of carbon this year, a 27 percent reduction from 2005. That’s already below the Clean Power Plan’s interim goal for 2024, and most of the way to the 32 percent reduction the plan envisions for 2030. If you subtract emissions from the 71 operating coal plants that already have announced retirement dates, the electric sector has just about met the plan’s final emissions goals 15 years early, even though the plan does not now have and may never have any legal teeth to compel compliance.

Scientists have said the world needs to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of global warming, so the electric sector still has far to go, the rest of the U.S. economy even farther, and the rest of the world still farther. There are even disparities within the electric sector; the data show that nine fossil-fueled states, all won by Trump except Colorado, have not yet whittled their coal fleets enough to meet their 2024 emissions goals. While several western and northeastern blue states have pledged to go coal-free and are well on their way, red states like Kansas, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming are as coal-dependent as ever.

But the overall trend is unmistakable. Power-plant coal consumption in 2016 is projected to drop to 640 million short tons, down 38 percent from 2005. That’s significantly lower than the EPA expected after 15 years of Clean Power Plan implementation, and with another 15 percent of the remaining coal fleet already scheduled to shut down, those numbers will drop much lower. In fact, the Sierra Club found that if the unprecedented rate of coal retirements over the last three years continues, the power sector will be completely coal-free by 2022.

That’s unlikely, but after a spate of bankruptcy filings by coal giants like Arch, Alpha, and Peabody, experts believe Trump’s vision of a revived coal industry with plentiful new jobs is even less likely. Last year, two thirds of all new U.S. power generating capacity came from wind and solar, and just about all of the rest came from natural gas. Megan Berge, a Washington attorney who represents power companies, says they’re abandoning coal primarily because wind and solar prices have dropped by more than two thirds in the Obama era, while gas prices have hovered near historic lows. Federal tax credits for renewables and state mandates promoting renewables have contributed as well. Obama’s new carbon rules, designed to accelerate the clean-energy trend, haven’t had a chance to do much.

“There’s a lot of excitement about rolling back the Clean Power Plan, but as a practical matter, the impact on power generation should be minimal to none,” Berge said.

The problem for the coal industry is that power-plant investment decisions are usually based on price, and coal is no longer a cheap choice. Even in fossil-fueled red states like Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Nebraska, utilities and regulators have chosen to retire aging and uneconomic coal plants rather than pour ratepayer dollars into expensive modern pollution controls. Climate activists like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has donated $80 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, argue that the market forces squeezing coal are stronger than anything Trump can do to prop up the industry. Coal is even struggling in China, and it’s not because that government fears eco-activists.

“Coal is dying because of economics, not politics, and it’s not coming back,” Bloomberg said in a statement.


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