Parts of the news media have been crying out that there's been a war on coal in the United States for years now, but as new restrictions from the federal EPA, Congress and the executive branch are looking more and more like a reality, it's time to take a closer look at the future for the coal industry. Before we get too carried away, it's important to remember there are a plethora of reasons why coal appears to be moving out to pasture in the United States. By taking a look at each of them, it's possible to understand why coal is beginning to make an exit from the U.S. energy industry.
1. Environmental concerns
First and foremost, coal is dirty. It's dirty to mine, it's dirty to transport and it's dirty to burn - more so than any other conventional fossil fuel. When you look at the rules and regulations being brought to bear on the energy industry as a whole, nearly all of them have to do with trying to make the process of generating electricity less impactful on the environment. As much as the industry likes to push the idea that "clean coal" already exists, the fact remains that the use of coal as a fuel is considerably more detrimental to the environment than burning natural gas - the closest fuel in sheer consumption numbers.
Coal also produces the most carbon emissions of conventional fossil fuels, making coal plants an easy target for new emissions standards focused on drastically reducing carbon dioxide levels in the next few years. There are technologies that could reduce coal emissions to acceptable levels in these new standards, but the expense of the technology essentially prevents their implementation, bringing us to our next point:
2. Alternatives are more affordable than ever before
There's never been a time when so many viable alternatives to coal existed so affordably since the discovery of electricity. The natural gas market is booming in the U.S. as a direct result of new horizontal drilling techniques and the renewable energy industry is finally hitting its stride as windmills and solar panels become more efficient and less expensive by the day. Simply put, the coal industry is dealing with stronger competition that ever before, and it's looking like it can't take the heat on its own.
Because coal has been so prevalent for so long, many of the infrastructure elements designed for generating electricity from coal are in need of repair. As utilities across the country begin retiring their old coal power plants, more often they are considering an alternative fuel as a replacement. For the first time in decades there is new industry interest in nuclear generation stations, as well as natural gas-firing plants which more easily meet the newest stringent standards on emissions.
3. Making coal work in today's market is expensive
Coal has had a good run in the United States. Since the late 19th century, coal has been the driving fuel of electricity plants in this country - a testament to its abundance in North America. While there is still a great deal of coal under the ground, it's becoming harder for mining companies to access it, and thus more expensive. Plus, the risks associated with traditional mining operations are resulting in more technology and less human power being incorporated in the process.
Above all, continuing on with coal at the crux of the nation's energy portfolio is becoming politically dangerous. With fewer people being supported by the coal industry, many voters are more concerned with either the industries that support their families, the pollution woes of coal or simply the monetary costs of keeping coal on the books when other abundant fuels are becoming cheaper.
No matter how you slice it, there is a war on coal, but it's been a long time coming.