What's next for coal?

Hank Hayes • Jun 5, 2017 at 8:30 AM

KINGSPORT – Big Coal’s pivot to recovery after former President Obama’s so-called “War On Coal” is expected to include a continued political focus but also changing technology, according to speakers at the recent Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance (VCEA) Conference.

“We’ve been very, very focused in the energy industry on federal policy, and appropriately so,” said William “Bill” Murray, managing director of Public Policy at Dominion Energy.

Murray predicted “big swings” in regulation and told coal operators at the conference to “be careful what you wish for in executive power.”

While President Donald Trump has signed an executive order rescinding Obama administration energy policies, Murray suggested Congress may hold more power over coal’s future.

Congress initiated the 22nd Amendment to limit the president’s terms in office to two, Murray pointed out.

“Would (Dwight) Eisenhower have won a third term in 1960? Easily. Would (Ronald) Reagan had he chose to run in 1988 be elected? You can argue George H.W. Bush was the third Reagan term,” Murray noted.

Conference speakers also pushed back against Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive directive instructing the Department of Environmental Quality to begin the process of establishing regulations in Virginia that will reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

“The threat of climate change is real, and we have a shared responsibility to confront it,” McAuliffe said in a prepared release. “Once approved, this regulation will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the Commonwealth’s power plants and give rise to the next generation of energy jobs. As the federal government abdicates its role on this important issue, it is critical for states to fill the void.”

U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., called McAuliffe’s move a cap-and-trade scheme.

“I think the philosophy is misguided,” Griffith observed at the conference. “Instead of having Virginia acting alone and getting a handful of states to go along with it … it’s not going to have very much impact on the air quality and we don’t have the world buying into it … unless the world truly buys into it, it doesn’t function … the world wants to see their way of living go up instead of going down. In the United States, we’ve forgotten you have to have economic progress … we have to be constantly pushing forward to get our economy to grow.”

VCEA also attacked McAuliffe’s move.

“The federal government now is scaling back burdensome and harmful regulations initiated by President Obama’s administration to limit carbon dioxide emissions, because of the recent national election for president,” VCEA President Harry D. Childress said. “This scale back is necessary because of the regulations’ devastating economic impact to the nation’s economy and the hindrance of economic growth. Indeed, a review by the independent non-partisan Virginia State Corporation Commission estimated that the proposed federal regulations would increase electricity costs in Virginia by $5.5 billion to $6 billion dollars. Simply put, the governor seeks to implement a failed national policy that will hamper economic growth in Virginia.

“The VCEA strongly believes that any such regulatory policy should first be evaluated and debated through the legislative process. Any proposed regulations that could potentially increase Virginians’ electricity costs by billions of dollars should be voted on by the elected members of the Virginia General Assembly … the future of Virginia’s economic wellbeing should be decided by the Commonwealth’s elective representatives, and not unnamed bureaucrats.”

Aside from politics, technology in coal operations is expected to cause a seismic shift in its work force, said Michael E. Karmis, Stonie Barker Professor and director of the Virginia Center for Coal & Energy Research at Virginia Tech.

Karmis also said coal mines will be sustainable and highly productive operations that will embrace innovation.

“Mines of the future will be digital operations connecting people and machines seamlessly … the work force will change … it will go from blue collar to white collar to a different type of employee,” Karmis said.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) believes coal is an extremely important fuel and will remain so.

“Some 23 percent of primary energy needs are met by coal and 39 percent of electricity is generated from coal,” WNA said. “About 70 percent of world steel production depends on coal feedstock. Coal is the world's most abundant and widely distributed fossil fuel source. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects a 43 percent increase in its use from 2000 to 2020.

“However, burning coal produces almost 14 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year which is released to the atmosphere, most of this being from power generation. Development of new 'clean coal' technologies is addressing this problem so that the world's enormous resources of coal can be utilized for future generations without contributing to global warming.”

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