The West’s war on coal reminds me of Wile E. Coyote and the roadrunner. The harder he tries to catch the speedy bird, the more frustrated he becomes.

Bloomberg reported in October that, “Never in human history has a ton of coal cost more,” simply because “governments and utilities worldwide are willing to pay record sums to literally keep the lights on.” And then the United Nations had to accept a compromise deal at Glasgow to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal production.

Despite President Obama’s pledge (reiterated by President Biden) to end coal production in the United States, coal still provides about 10 percent of U.S. energy consumption. The nation’s top coal-producing state, Wyoming, created a $1.2 million fund earmarked for financing lawsuits against other states (notably Washington) that block exports of Wyoming coal and thus create harm to Wyoming coal mines and miners, power plants, and citizens.

The state hopes that the Supreme Court will consider a lawsuit filed by Wyoming and Montana seeking to override a Washington State decision to deny a permit for a coal export dock on the Columbia River.

Wyoming Mining Association executive director Travis Deti, argues that, “There are some people out there that understand that the world needs coal.” In his view, developed nations with coal resources should continue to sell to developing nations who rely on coal as an energy source in order to move them toward a modern economy.

Worldwide, efforts to shutter coal mines are yielding cartoonish results. British mining company Anglo American Plc had planned to shut down its seven South African coal mines but instead tucked its coal operations into Thungela Resources Ltd. Investors were to “decide for themselves” whether to hold or sell their shares in the spun-off company.

Oops! Thungela CEO July Ndlovu (formerly the Anglo American CEO) shortly afterward announced, “I didn’t take up this role to close these mines, to close this business.” Ndlovu asserted that Thungela would be seeking to grow its coal production, not shrink it, with plans to produce more than 10 million tons per year for the next decade or longer.

Down in Australia, the New South Wales government overturned a local planning commission’s decision to block expansion of a coal mine that opponents claim will cause irreversible damage to drinking water and release tons of the dreaded carbon dioxide. But Deputy Premier Paul Toole and Planning Minister Rob Stokes declared the Dendrobium mine expansion was “state significant infrastructure” that provides coal for the Port Kembla steelworks.

Australian mining giant BHP Group, which has been struggling to divest from coal, found it necessary to extend its mining permits before finally selling its 80 percent interest in BHP Mitsui Coal to Stanmore Resources, which is also developing a coking coal project in Australia’s Bowen Basin. China has been boycotting Australian coal, but fuel shortages in the Middle Kingdom forced an end to the boycott.

While the feckless UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Glasgow begged the world to “consign coal to history,” the world yawned. Coal continues to dominate the world’s electricity mix, and energy shortages in China and European nations have only reinforced the fact that the world remains deeply dependent on black carbon.

It is true that 46 countries and several organizations made commitments at Glasgow to phase out coal power and that South Africa entered into an $8.5 billion partnership deal to accelerate a coal phaseout. It is also true that various nations and banks pledged to end the financing of all fossil fuel infrastructure by 2022. But nobody is really following through (except Joe and Boris).

A brand-new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies lays out the major reasons that China, India, and Australia in particular will long remain “addicted to coal.” All of these reasons rest on economic realities and citizen demand.

While the Chinese government has officially supported reduced reliance on coal for economic growth, recent power shortages and rolling blackouts caused President Xi’s minions to call for greater coal production and coal-power generation and for more banks to lend to mines and coal-fired power plants.

Even before the current severe power shortage, CSIS acknowledges, China was already building roughly 88 gigawatts of additional capacity to expand its 1,080 GW coal-fired power fleet, which is about five times the installed coal-fired power capacity in the United States. Does anyone truly believe China will soon abandon coal?

Lead CSIS author Sandeep Pai notes also that coal is a “mainstay” of India’s energy system that also provides jobs directly or indirectly to 4 million Indians. Moreover, nearly 40 percent of Indian districts are dependent on the coal sector for jobs, revenues, and school construction and operation; six Indian states rely heavily on coal revenues. Coal today provides 70 percent of the energy-deficient nation’s electricity.

Nope. India is not giving up on coal for decades. Over half of India’s coal power plants are less than 10 years old, and most were funded by state-owned banks who lent billions for their construction and await their full return on investment. The nation, while the world’s second largest coal importer (after China), also has massive coal reserves many want to harness to provide reliable energy and power for people and industries. The Modi government is rapidly auctioning off coal reserves to private companies in an effort to increase domestic production.

Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter, currently produces five times as much coal per person as the next closest country (South Africa). While urban Aussies may want to honor the Paris and Glasgow accords, rural Australians remain thankful for the revenues and prosperity that coal has brought. Even today, coal provides over half of Australia’s electricity, more than to-thirds in politically dominant Queensland, Victoria, and New South Wales. No wonder the CSIS authors doubt that Australia will agree to phasing out coal production anytime soon.

Even in the United States, support for coal mining and exports remains politically viable. There are only about 50,000 unionized coal miners in the U.S. today, Biden Administration climate legislation is being held up by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, whose constituency includes significant numbers of coal-dependent voters. Coal also matters in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and a few other states. The New York Times even calls coal miners “the Achilles heel” of Biden’s climate plan.

Nope, what was supposed to be a funeral for coal up in Scotland ended up with the delegates running out of the room as the “corpse” climbed out of its coffin and said, “Boo!”

Author

  • Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, "Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout."