By HANK HAYES
Big Coal has a lot on its plate right now: COVID-19, climate change and overseas competition, for example.
But whether coal is successful or not all starts with steel, according to Jack Richardson, chief operating officer for Warrior Met Coal.
“COVID, our customers were forced to make significant reductions in steel production starting in April, (but) we believe the worst is behind us for now,” Richard said during a virtual meeting held by the Metallurgical Coal Producer’s Association (MCPA) and Southern States Energy Board (SSEB). “We have seen a continuous improvement in demand since late summer. We choose to remain cautious as we navigate through the next few quarters.”
Coal goes into making steel, which Richardson noted is one of the most utilized materials in modern society.
“It is present in one shape or form in most sectors of our economy. More than half the steel produced annually is used in construction and infrastructure projects,” he pointed out.
Richardson said China is the largest steel producing country with more than 50% of production, while the U.S. is fourth.
“We believe demand for coal will continue to grow due to metal production,” Richardson concluded.
The politics of coal
MCPA’s West Virginia political action committee has endorsed President Trump’s re-election bid.
U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said the stakes of the November presidential election are pretty high.
“If we lose the majority and (Democratic presidential nominee Joe) Biden wins the presidency, the filibuster is going to fall and everything will change,” she said. “I’m not just worried about the regulatory environment. Everything can be legislated from that. I’m highly doubtful much will get passed by the end of the year.”
Coal’s burning issues
Steve Winberg, assistant secretary for Fossil Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy, said a number of coal-fired units at power plants are nearing the end of their lifespans.
“Like cars and machinery, they wear out. We’re going to continue to see those retirements,” Winberg stressed.
Last month, the SSEB was awarded a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy to support and enhance the agency’s mission of helping the United States meet its need for secure, affordable and environmentally sound fossil energy supplies.
The grant continues the work of the board’s Committee on Clean Coal Energy Policies and Technologies by convening the region’s governors and legislative leaders within the SSEB region, state agencies, universities, utilities, regulatory bodies, the private sector, and nonprofit organizations to foster and facilitate communication, education and outreach on fossil energy-related topics.
The committee analyzes issues impacting the domestic and international commercial deployment of advanced power generation, power plant efficiency, water management, and carbon dioxide (CO2) capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies by expanding the value chain for coal and coal by-products with an emphasis on public policy.
“Access to reliable clean coal technology supports economic development and job growth,” Winberg said. “There is a bright future for 21st century coal.”
Solar’s role in coal country
During a “Green Innovation in Coal Country” webinar co-hosted by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment and Sewanee University, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen talked about what’s driving green technologies in Appalachia.
Bredesen chairs a solar company called Clearloop Corp.
“I think one of the most important things we can do is shift the narrative to show that environmental progress especially with regard to greenhouse gas but also with economic opportunity,” Bredesen said.
“This greater Appalachia area is a good example of how this might work. The interest in solar in this region is being driven by several different things.
“One of them is the big tech companies — Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google — are busy locating data centers in the region.
“Second of all, manufacturing is an important part of the economy is this part of the country. It is going green. Volkswagen is an early leader. Bridgestone, a tire company here in Nashville, has made a major commitment to do something serious about their own footprint. I think greater Appalachia could be central to our country’s strategy to do something serious about greenhouse gas emissions.”