“Remember the Polar Vortex!” – ACC Response to CNN ‘divestment’ editorial

I submitted this ACC response to the CNN.com editorial board on April 28th. However, I did not receive a reply and the response was not printed. Therefore, I am publishing our response to the Coalblog to ensure our views on this issue are available to our readers.

Remember the Polar Vortex!

In his April 22 editorial, “We’re getting out of fossil fuels investments,” Rockefeller Brothers Fund CEO Stephen Heintz attempts to make the case that getting out of fossil fuel investments was good for his fund and its investors. His reasons for making the divestment decision require readers to accept his several unsubstantiated claims about coal and fossil fuels.

Oil, natural gas, and coal have all been impacted by a tepid economy and slow growth in energy demand. A mild winter and the continuation of oversupplied energy markets have added to these pressures. However, beyond the cyclicality of energy commodities is another factor altogether. Coal has been politically disfavored by the current administration, and onerous new regulations have increased the cost of doing business, prematurely shuttered coal plants, and driven down the value of the commodity.

Despite Heintz’s wishful thinking, the reality is that no serious energy forecasters believe the fossil fuels industry is on its last legs. Looking well out into the future, the EIA predicts that coal, natural gas, and petroleum will together make up 65% of American electricity supply to 2040. The International Energy Agency reports that coal continues to be the world’s fastest growing fuel source, currently supplying over 40% of world electricity demand.

Heintz uses terms like “dirty” to describe coal, and lists a string of impacts he associates with mining that seem to be something out of the distant past. Coal mining is stringently regulated and by law mines must be reclaimed, often to original contour, or developed for a desired human use. Any company that left streams, “so acidic that no fish can live” would face charges and fines.

Unfortunately, it appears that only the EPA can escape liability for impacting streams in the manner Heintz describes. After allowing the release of roughly three million gallons of wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River in August 2015 – enough to turn the river orange for an extended period – EPA officials have escaped accountability. No one has been fined, charged, or has even received an official reprimand.

Heintz also states that burning coal “poisons our people”. Quite the contrary, as EIA, USDA, and EPA data show reductions in emissions of criteria pollutants (NOx, SOx, and PM10) by about 90% per MWh of electricity produced since 1970. Off-the-shelf technologies today can reduce mercury emissions from coal plants by over 90%. A 2016 study by Energy Ventures Analysis calculates the value of investments in emissions reductions technologies during the period from 2000 to 2015 at over $110 billion.

Newer technologies such as supercritical boilers, gasification, and carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) can address the CO2 challenge as well. EPA data on coal-fueled power generation and passenger vehicles show that replacing an aging coal plant with a new advanced coal-fueled plant will reduce CO2 emissions equivalent to removing more than 210,000 cars from the road each year.

Affordable, reliable electricity is the lifeblood of our nation’s economy. Mr. Heintz appears to recognize its importance as he attempts to paint fossil fuels’ renewable competitors as “becoming cheaper than even natural gas.” However, EIA figures for 2015 show that wind and solar together produced just over 5% of our total electricity supply. Reliant on mandates and multiple billions of dollars in subsidies, renewable energy – intermittent, inefficient renewable energy – cannot and should not be counted on to replace fossil fuels to provide the energy we need. Rather than glibly referring to the money to be made and lost in the energy transition as he sees it, Heintz would do well to remember the polar vortex winter of 2014 and recognize the value of fuel diversity and energy security to every American.

Jason Hayes is associate director of the American Coal Council

13. May 2016 by Jason Hayes
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