As the recent election cycle demonstrated, American politics is beset with a number of polarizing issues. Among the most obvious has been the debate over coal. Where Hillary Clinton favored renewable energy at the expense of the coal industry, Donald Trump has promised to launch a coal renaissance. This “either/or” schism overlooks a larger point, though, since technological advances could eventually lead to coal—and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports—playing a key role in the clean energy transformation of the 21st Century.
Before this is even possible, however, government policy must find a middle course that balances costs with reasonable goals. Roughly 200 U.S. coal plants have closed in recent years, due in part to burdensome regulations that failed to adequately assess job losses. Ironically, President Obama may have offered a helpful solution back in 2008 when he first suggested “If technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it. That I think is the right approach.”
Regrettably, the president never followed through on the possibility of making coal cleaner. And that’s unfortunate since advanced technologies have made extraordinary progress in recent years, leading to coal emissions that are now 90 percent cleaner than 30 years ago. And thanks to pilot programs in Mississippi, Texas, and Saskatchewan, this same scientific prowess is also beginning to allow for the capture of coal’s carbon dioxide emissions. Given the right investment, such technology could become a game-changer. In fact, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has suggested that meeting climate targets for this century could actually be impossible without successful carbon capture development.
It’s noteworthy that America has long benefited from a diverse mix of power sources, and electricity generation anchored by coal currently saves consumers roughly $90 billion annually according to IHS Energy Consulting. Imagine, then, if the United States could move forward with the affordable, abundant power that coal provides—and without the carbon emissions that have hung a question mark over the future of the world economy.
Instead of consigning coal to the scrap heap—and triggering mass unemployment that would necessitate tens of billions of dollars in federal aid to coal country residents—Washington should focus on efforts to make coal more environmentally friendly. Such a responsible path forward would require combined action from both industry and government. But the development of such advanced technologies could establish America as a global leader while also benefiting a developing world already banking heavily on coal.
It’s clear that America will need abundant power generation in the years to come. And since the United States possesses the world’s largest reserves of coal, it makes sense to incorporate coal as part of a diverse energy mix that also includes natural gas, renewables, and nuclear power. Americans want energy solutions that continue to use and explore advanced technologies. And so, there are obvious advantages to incorporating cleaner coal along with the jobs and revenue that such technology could support.
The advanced coal technologies under development today continue a decades-long trend of reducing emissions and increasing efficiency at coal power plants.
Thus, the effort to make coal cleaner should be part of an “all-of-the above” strategy for clean energy in the 21st Century. The world’s growing need for energy, and America’s own reliance on a diverse energy supply, argue strongly for such a path forward.
Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant, and a former commissioner on the Missouri Public Service Commission.