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President Obama’s tin ear on clean coal

Train cars containing coal roll into an unloading facility at Dominion Terminal Associates' coal terminal in Newport News, Va.
Train cars containing coal roll into an unloading facility at Dominion Terminal Associates' coal terminal in Newport News, Va.
Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

The Obama administration’s decision to cut funding for the world’s first nearly zero-emissions coal plant is just the latest sign that U.S. energy policy has succumbed to wishful thinking rather than sober analysis of global energy realities.

FutureGen, to be built in Illinois, was going to be the first full-scale demonstration of a process to capture carbon dioxide from a coal plant and bury it underground. The deployment of carbon capture and storage technology has long been singled out by the U.S. Department of Energy, the International Energy Agency and numerous other energy organizations as critical to meeting international climate goals.

Despite the administration’s action, the development of advanced technologies to burn coal with near-zero emissions remains critical to both America’s energy future and the world’s. The reason is simple enough — coal is here to stay.

Coal’s importance and use globally is at an all-time high. China is a case in point. It is currently burning nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. China’s coal plant fleet is two and a half times the size of ours — and coal is vitally important here at home. Despite administration efforts to shut them down, coal-fired power plants still generate about 40 percent of our nation’s electricity.

What’s more, the United States has the world’s largest coal reserves and a mining technology and workforce that rank second to none. No president, especially one who wants us to take the lead in addressing climate change, should turn his back on coal.

The current administration should allow demonstration projects like FutureGen to go forward, since they could lead to a technological leap that brings down the cost of producing electricity from clean coal. Some of the techniques that could accomplish this include washing chemicals from coal and better ways of removing carbon from flue gases.

But the administration’s strategy leaves no room for hope or change. It not only has abandoned FutureGen, but current policy is detrimental to environmental efforts to use coal more wisely.

Rather than finding ways to burn coal without loading the atmosphere with carbon that could be emulated by other countries, the administration’s so-called Clean Power Plan provides no realistic model for the world. By requiring a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from electricity generation by 2030 (compared with 2005 levels), the administration’s action would push hundreds of the nation’s coal plants into early retirement.

The anti-coal policy is a mistake for several reasons. It will drive up electricity costs; a prominent economic consulting firm’s study forecasts double-digit jumps in electricity rates in 43 states. Compliance with the Clean Power Plan will cost consumers and businesses a whopping $41 billion per year. Thousands of coal miners will be laid off. And all of this will happen without making a dent in climate change. The carbon problem is global. Progress won’t come without U.S. leadership on advanced clean coal technologies.

Under Obama’s plan, U.S. emissions reductions will be quickly offset by a rise in carbon emissions overseas. If the president thinks other nations, particularly developing economies in Asia, will follow our lead and abandon coal, he’s very wrong.

The Asian Development Bank recently estimated that coal plants would generate 83 percent of electricity in Asia and the Pacific Rim by 2035. In India, where 300 million people still have no access to electricity and where an emerging middle class is using more power than ever, electricity demand is expected to triple by 2030. India’s energy minister, Piyush Goyal, has not minced words. He recently said, “India’s development imperatives cannot be sacrificed at the altar of potential climate changes many years in the future.” India’s coal consumption is expected to leapfrog ours in just five years.

Obama’s absurd view of how to tackle the challenge of rising carbon emissions poses a real threat to the U.S. economy. And his unwillingness to accept the growing global importance of coal and put the strength of American innovation behind advanced clean-coal technology is unforgivable.

William F. Shughart II, research director of the Independent Institute (Oakland, CA), is J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business.