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Commentary: Don’t write off coal

Conventional wisdom has it that the U.S. coal industry peaked a decade ago and is in a state of permanent decline. Recent data would seem to bear this out.

Domestic coal production has dropped from 1.2 billion short tons in 2008 to 739 million last year while employment in coal mining, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has fallen from nearly 180,000 in 1986 to only 50,000 coal miners today — though much of this decline has been caused by automation. What’s more, in 2016 natural gas overtook coal’s share of U.S. power generation while renewables have also gained market share at coal’s expense.

But all is not gloom and doom. Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, America’s two largest coal companies, have exited bankruptcy with much lower operating costs. Production has jumped 38 percent over the past year as natural gas prices have climbed above $3 per MMBtu (million British thermal units) , making coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming competitive with gas almost everywhere in the lower 48 states..

In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order mandating a review of President Obama’s coal-killing “Clean Power Plan,” thereby granting a “stay of execution” for hundreds of coal- and gas-fired power plants. And though they fell between 2014 and 2016 because of a sluggish global economy and a strong dollar, U.S. coal exports are expected to grow in the years ahead.

The development and deployment of advanced coal technologies that reduce air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions have also brightened the long-term prospects for the industry. For example, pulverized coal combustion and integrated gasification combined cycle systems have been shown to reduce CO2 emissions by 25 percent compared with conventional coal plants. Researchers at MIT and other leading universities are exploring techniques to capture emissions from both coal and natural gas plants and use the carbon to manufacture petrochemicals, plastics and other products.

Carbon capture, utilization and storage has already become a commercial reality. Assisted by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, NRG Energy and JX Nippon Oil and Gas Exploration began operating the world’s largest post-combustion carbon capture system in January at the Parish Coal-Fired Generating Plant southwest of Houston. The project is designed to capture 1.6 million tons of CO2 per year. An 82 mile long pipeline transports the CO2 to an oil field west of the plant where some will be stored and the rest used for enhanced oil recovery.

In Alberta, Canada, a company is capturing carbon from a natural gas plant and injecting it into concrete, thereby reducing the need for composite material in its manufacture. In Mississippi, a power plant burning lignite coal is capturing 65 percent of the CO2 emissions and pumping it to other companies for use in enhanced oil recovery.

Fuel cells also offer opportunities to reduce emissions from both coal and gas-fired power plants. To that end, in 2016 Exxon Mobil formed an agreement with FuelCell Energy, a Connecticut company whose fuel cells are already generating electricity at 50 locations around the world, whereby FuelCell Energy will isolate and compress carbon dioxide while producing enough power to more than compensate for the energy cost of capturing and sequestering the carbon. Exxon believes that a 500-megawatt power plant with fuel cells can generate 120 megawatts of additional power compared with a loss of 50 megawatts of power using conventional carbon capture technology. Importantly, using fuel cells at the growing number of natural gas fired power plants could reduce CO2 emissions by more than 90 percent.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, though coal’s share of power generation in America is likely to decline further, worldwide use of coal will continue to grow for at least the next 30 years. That means global warming will probably continue unless all countries get serious about reducing carbon emissions. To that end, the U.S. has the potential to become the world leader in carbon capture, utilization and storage as technologies developed here spread to other parts of the world, particularly developing countries for which coal will remain the cheapest and most practical option for generating electricity in the foreseeable future.

Weinstein is associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute and an adjunct professor of business economics in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.

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