Despite the anti-fossil fuel rhetoric of world governments, coal power surges in use amid the current European energy crisis, with countries that previously shuttered coal power plants scrambling to re-open them.
By Duggan Flanakin
Remember the old days (a few months ago) when Western Europe and the U.S. were telling developing nations (but not China or India) that coal is evil and must not be mined?
Remember in 2008 when future President Barack Obama promised that, while anyone could build a coal-fired power plant, “It will bankrupt them?”
Remember seven years ago, when Politico, citing the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, explained it this way: “The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days.”
Just a year ago, at the UN Climate Conference in Gleneagles, there was widespread support for a statement that “coal power generation is the single biggest cause of global temperature increases” and for a commitment to assist the developing world to transition from coal.
A major reason for the animosity toward President Trump was his declaration in 2016 that the war on coal that President Obama had championed was “over.” Yet, in 2019 the Breakthrough Institute proclaimed that, “far from saving coal, the Trump Administration has instead overseen the accelerating decline of the industry it promised to protect.” They concluded that “coal simply cannot compete” with other fuels even without burdensome environmental regulations.
Today, however, nations worldwide are scrambling to buy coal to heat homes, run factories, and keep economies functioning. Reasons range from unwise decisions to abandon even natural gas and nuclear in the misguided push toward “net zero by 2050” to the Russia-Ukraine war. Not everyone, it seems, has been willing to shiver to prove their commitment to decarbonization.
Coal has long been the target of folksingers and activists, none of whom seem to have any appreciation of its contribution to civilization. While the Chinese discovered coal about 5,500 years ago, the ancient Romans were the first Westerners to extract coal from surface seams in Britain and use it to smith iron, heat bathhouses, and light temples.
Coal drove the Industrial Revolution, fueling trains, steamships, and factories. The availability of coal oil enabled countries to save the whales from extinction. And despite the angst against coal, the “most polluting” fossil fuel rebounded from the COVID-19 slowdowns in 2020 to consumption levels in 2021 that barely fell short of the previous record year of 2014.
While both China and India, the world’s leading consumers of coal, continue to build new coal-fired power plants, European nations who just yesterday were bragging about phasing out the “dirty” fuel are scrambling to reopen shuttered coal mines before the coming winter.
In Germany, for example, officials insist that the phaseout of coal is still on track but that adjustments had to be made “because Putin.” Yet the Germans are so conscious of winter’s realities that they are demolishing an entire wind farm to reopen and expand a lignite mine.
Other European nations, lacking coal reserves (or unwilling to reopen long-shuttered coal mines), are now actively seeking to purchase African coal – despite decades of demanding that Africans eschew all fossil fuel development (and refusing to provide financing). Tanzanian coal executive Rizwan Ahmed says, “European players, after the Russian war, are going to any place where there is coal. They are offering to pay very good prices.”
Jan Dieleman, who runs Cargill’s ocean transportation division, adds that, “Europe should be able to source coal and we will see very strong flows into Europe from Colombia, South Africa, and even further away.”
The European demand for coal is so great that land-locked Botswana is now capable of selling its coal on the seaborne market. As Minergy CEO Morné du Plessis explains, “Earlier, the logistics would kill us. However, at current prices, we can make this thing work.”
Stateside, the Biden Administration continues its assault on the fossil fuel industry even in the midst of inflation fueled largely by high energy prices and the prospect of energy shortfalls as winter approaches. Native American tribes that have traditionally relied on fossil fuel production are livid over an agenda that has devastated tribal economies.
While roughly 30 percent of U.S. coal reserves west of the Mississippi are on Native American lands, about 86 percent of Indigenous land with energy and mineral resource potential remains undeveloped. The Crow Nation alone has coal and resource assets worth an estimated $27 billion, yet federal officials have opposed development of these valuable assets.
Conrad Stewart, director of energy and water for the Crow Nation of Montana, put it bluntly: “A war on coal is a war on Crow.”
Fact is, Crow coal is but a fraction of the total (half of which is locked up) U.S. coal reserves. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani famously stated that the U.S has more coal reserves than Saudi Arabia has oil reserves. And even Politico had to agree with him.
The U.S. could be producing enough coal to satisfy both Asian and European markets, but the cost of shipping even clean Western coal is hindered by NIMBY governments in California and Washington State that bar any coal exports. Coal-producing states (Utah, Montana, and Wyoming) have sued, citing violations of the commerce clause.
Barack Obama once thought that knocking out coal would be an easy win. So did the European Union, the United Nations, and European bankers (all with significant exceptions for China, India, and other nations beyond their direct control). But foolish energy choices, unexpected armed conflicts, and the growing demand in developing nations (especially in Africa) for modernization are all getting in the way of killing coal. Once again, the world is crying out for more coal to get through the coming winter.
The world’s oldest high-density fuel, it seems, is like that cat with nine lives. Every time you think you have killed it, the cat comes back. Give me a “meow.”
Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, “Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout.”
Originally published by RealClearEnergy, reposted with permission.