Early in the October 16 town hall debate, audience member Phillip Tricolla asked President Obama whether he agreed with Energy Secretary Steven Chu that his department is not concerned about lowering gasoline prices. This led to a broader discussion of energy policy, rife with claims and counter claims by the President and Governor Romney.
Let’s start with coal production. President Obama said, “We have seen increases in coal production and employment” during his term. Governor Romney retorted that, “I was in coal country. People grabbed my arms and said, ‘Please save my job.’ The head of the EPA said, ‘You can’t build a coal plant. You’ll virtually — it’s virtually impossible given our regulations.’ When the president ran for office, he said if you build a coal plant, you can go ahead, but you’ll go bankrupt. That’s not the right course for America.
Let’s look at the facts. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, coal production first hit 1 billion short tons in 1990, fell back for three years, but has held steady at above 1 billion short tons ever since, peaking in 2008 — President George W. Bush’s last year in office — at 1,171,809,000 tons. Under President Obama, production was 1.075 billion tons in 2009, 1.085 billion tons in 2010, and 1.09 billion tons in 2011; but the EIA says that US coal production through August 25, 2012, is down 5.4% from 2011 figures.
Coal industry employment is up, or down, depending on the source. The Mine Safety and Health Administration claims an average of 142,263 workers during 2011 compared with 133,827 in 2008, while the EIA says the numbers are 136,710 for 2011 and 136,574 for 2008. But MSHA also reports that the number of active U.S. coal mines has shrunk from 2,129 in 2008 to just 1,325 in 2011, with more to be closed and new mining permits much harder to obtain. Moreover, while U.S. recoverable coal reserves total 259.5 billion short tons, only 17.9 billon tons are recoverable from producing mines.
Coal exports, however, are a political football. In 2011, as the U.S. electric power industry used 119 million fewer tons of U.S. coal than in 2010, the U.S. exported 107 million tons, up 31% from 2010. But that could change. According to a report in The Hill (October 7), should Sen. Ron Wyden (D, Oregon) become chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, he would continue his push for restrictions on coal exports through expanded environmental reviews. Wyden has already called on President Obama to halt all U.S. energy exports “to allow more time for economic and environmental studies” – sounds like another Gulf oil moratorium, but this time on coal.