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President Obama, Coal Killer

Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus .'s picture
Consultants, Breakthrough Institute
  • Member since 2018
  • 21 items added with 19,192 views
  • Jul 5, 2013

Obama Coal Killer

Last week, President Obama forcefully put natural gas at the center of his agenda to deal with climate change. “Sometimes there are disputes about natural gas,” he acknowledged, recognizing the local controversies over fracking, “but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.” 

Observing that trend over very long time horizons can make it seem automatic; it is anything but. Public policies help bring new technologies to market, build infrastructure to allow those technologies to proliferate, and tilt markets toward cleaner and more efficient technologies and away from dirtier ones.

The rapid shift from coal to gas in recent years is no exception. Sustained public policy, including billions of dollars in federal funding for everything from basic research to applied R&D, cost sharing on demonstration projects, and tax policy support for deployment, made the shale gas revolution possible. Stronger air pollution laws helped tilt electricity markets away from coal. And a dense network of gas pipelines and generation capacity made it possible for new gas reserves to get to market quickly. 

Obama’s determination to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants will likely further accelerate this transition from dirty coal to cleaner gas. Gas prices have been rising in recent months, as producers pulled back after overproducing, and coal has gained back some of its lost market share. But the specter of forthcoming carbon dioxide regulations will likely accelerate the closing of older coal plants and provides greater certainty for gas producers that any comeback from coal will be limited.

Low cost, abundant gas will mitigate the costs associated with shutting down coal plants and should provide policymakers with strong incentives to continue to strengthen both conventional air pollution laws and carbon dioxide regulations.  

The President’s speech should also, for all intents and purposes, mark the end of the fracking wars. For all their talk about methane leaks and water contamination, national environmental leaders offered unqualified praise for the President’s speech. 

Gas is no environmental panacea, but by virtually every environmental measure, natural gas is preferable to coal. Measured in terms of lives lost, water used, air and water polluted, and effect on global warming, a new Breakthrough Institute report, Coal Killer, finds natural gas is far better and cleaner than coal — a sponge rock of toxic minerals including mercury — sometimes by an order of magnitude. Coal Killer, further argues that cheap gas is a boon to zero-carbon innovation, not an obstacle to it.

If many environmental leaders have quietly and grudgingly accepted that gas, for the foreseeable future, will take center stage in America’s efforts to reduce emissions, some fractivists haven’t. Gasland director Josh Fox told John Oliver of the Daily Show that Obama had sold out environmentalists, siding with the fossil fuel industry over renewable energy alternatives. But given that the President continues to strongly advocate heavy subsidies for renewables, it is hard to conclude that he has given up on them.

The reality is that renewables have failed to displace coal or gas even with heavy state and federal subsidies and ambitious state deployment mandates. Responding to demands from environmentalists that he act now to reduce emissions, the President functionally chose a fairly straightforward approach: increase the regulatory cost of burning coal in order to further tilt the energy system towards gas. 

That decision would have been the same with or without the cooperation of Congressional Republicans. Had cap and trade legislation passed the Congress in 2010, its primary effect would have been the same as the Clean Air Act regulations that the President announced last week: accelerating the shift from coal to gas. So would proposals to establish a federal carbon tax as part of potential reform of the federal tax code. 

That is the ultimate lesson of decarbonization and energy transitions. Energy technologies that are cheaper and cleaner replace older technologies that are dirtier and more costly. Public policy can help new technology along, supporting innovation, building necessary infrastructure, creating early markets, and placing a finger on the scale (or pedal) to speed the transition. 

But until new technologies come along that offer real economic and performance benefits over the old, no amount of public policy will succeed in displacing the incumbent energy technology. If America’s natural gas revolution proves anything, it is that once we have energy technologies that are better, cheaper, and cleaner, it is possible to make significant progress on emissions fairly quickly.  

For this reason, gas should continue to deliver substantial emissions benefits over the next several decades. To continue to make progress beyond that, we will need to pay the gas revolution forward by investing in nuclear and renewables. 

That may not be the reality that many Americans want, some of whom are quite understandably upset with the ways in which fracking has changed landscapes that they love.  But it is the one that we have. Obama, to his credit, not only understood that reality but was courageous enough to be honest about it. 

Photo Credit: Obama Killing Coal?/shutterstock

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jul 5, 2013

The vast majority of Government support for natural gas originated well before the Obama Administration.  The primary regulatory motivation/priority had more to do with developing alternatives to petroleum oil and energy security, then carbon related issues.  That is why to Federal oil & gas development support overwhelmingly occurred before 2009.  Since becoming President Mr. Obama’s clear priority has been renewables and efficiency. Unfortunately, access to gas reserves on Federal lands/waters has actually declined over the past 5 years.  Fortunately, access to gas reserves on State and private lands has increased; the major contributing factor to recent domestic production increases. 

Moving forward the President needs to address gas production environmental concerns in a constructive manner as you imply.  Also, the Administration needs to carefully develop the new carbon emission limit rules for existing and new power plants.  If coal power capacity is shutdown too quickly, the rules are applied too aggressively to include all fossil fuels power plants (i.e.  natural gas), or if renewable wind/solar is expanded to aggressively the U.S. could face a natural gas shortage within the next 5-10 years.  The new power plant stack limits on carbon emissions should probably be based on kg CO2 per KWh net generation to avoid needlessly constraining natural gas power.  Since variable, non-dispatchable wind/solar essentially requires 100% natural gas peaking/intermediate power backup, expanding these renewables to rapidly could also increased natural gas consumption excessively.  All of these factors must be managed and coordinated overall to ensure the Power Sector’s carbon emissions are significantly reduced, but not by exceeding available domestic natural gas supply.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 6, 2013

What we need to do is deploy advanced nuclear because (as I extrapolate what I observe) we don’t have time to wait for all these fancy advanced machine automation singularity “stuff” – to make both the renewable energy field and its massive storage (very much) cheaper.

The effects of excess CO2 are happening ALREADY. Come on, people (the article and post are good, but) the biosphere is on the road to hell.

ONLY nuclear power (preferably, the kinds that are already proven that can NOT meltdown) can provide us with the EXCESS energy needed to grow the economy, which is mandatory to convert the EXCESS co2 into carbonates.

Natural gas can thus be used for the transportation sector, for a decade or two until all that fancy dancy machine automation replicates EV batteries for the cheap, too.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 7, 2013

It’s refreshing to hear about a politician (Obama) and a pro-environment organization (Breakthrough Institute) that actually does their homework and takes a stand on energy that’s actually good for the environment.  It is all too common for these types of people/groups to pursue their own self interest by demonizing anything that is new, whether its fracking or nuclear power.

With that said, today’s low price of natural gas (and its apparent abundance) suggests that we can’t transition to sustainable energy without strong policy support.

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Jul 6, 2013

It is still the fossil fuel industry that is behind all this. Now that coal is not popular anymore they changed to LNG and export the coal very cheaply to countries far far away. You must be a fool to believe that by lowering local emissions you better the world. That is moving the problem away from your plate to anothers. The problem in the end is that the net result is the same. There’s no other solution to really lowering carbon emissions on this planet and that is leave the stuff in the ground.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 7, 2013

According to the executive summary of the report in question, “
It is not the case that reduced US coal consumption has been offset by increased exports of US coal. From 2008 to 2012, annual coal consumption for US electric power declined, on average, by 50 million tons. Over the same four years, annual exports increased by only 14.5 million tons on average.”

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 8, 2013

Nuclear aside, I believe we have the global potential to develop machinery to automate  wind, solar and efficient battery storage. Without subsidy, these things will slow, however, at just a 22% growth rate per year, they would still power “everything” in like 40 years!

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Jul 8, 2013

That may be true but it shouldn’t be happening.

Why sell coal if you know it’s bad for your health?


Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus .'s picture
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