Energy Uncertainty Breathes New Life into Coal

by | published March 11th, 2011

The rising price of oil is prompting a broader debate over how to preserve as many power source options as possible. And it is beginning to provide a reprieve for one energy source under heavy pressure…


Before the eruptions from MENA (the Middle East and North Africa), it was a foregone conclusion that coal would be declining as a fuel for power generation in the U.S.

Certainly, coal-fired plants would not be disappearing completely in the near future… Yet the balance was clearly swinging in favor of natural gas and even renewables.

Most had expected that the battle over carbon capture and storage would be the watershed event marking the end of the coal industry. That fight is now delayed – but hardly forgotten – inside the D.C. beltway.

What happened instead is the introduction of new non-carbon regulations, set to begin next January, for mercury, sulfurous, and nitrous oxide emissions. (See “Two Non-Carbon Regulations About to Rock the Coal Sector,” October 29, 2010). These were expected to move more power generation from coal plants to gas-fueled ones.

With significant coal-fired generating capacity coming off-line in this decade, we were beginning to hear the swan song for coal.

But then…

The Turmoil Abroad Is Changing Priorities

The security implications of relying upon oil from unsettled areas abroad have emerged (again) as a domestic issue of importance.

This time, all parties agree, the U.S. understands that the instability in countries upon which we depend for crude oil will not be lessening any time soon.

As a consequence, renewed discussion has taken place about the desirability of retaining as many genuine energy options as possible. And that discussion certainly includes coal.

The rising instability has prompted some unexpected political results, too.

Some states, such as North and South Carolina, are introducing provisions to expedite regulatory review for new nuclear power plants. Others are providing generating companies with relaxed environmental standards (always expressed as a “temporary” measure).

This move to retain sources not dependent upon foreign provision of crude oil has made its way into some interesting changes in approaches to coal.

Just look at Minnesota…

The New Mantra: Let’s Keep Our Options Open

Minnesota state lawmakers are moving closer to overturning a ban on new coal-fired power plants and new imports of electricity from such facilities. These moves would comprise a major revision in state energy policy that was previously considered more or less settled.

On March 9, both houses of the Minnesota state legislature approved parallel bills that would overturn a ban on coal plants larger than 50 megawatts (MW) – the category of plants producing the very carbon dioxide emissions that the state legislators had previously sought to curtail. That ban also extended to new arrangements to import electricity generated by coal-first plants.

The move in Minnesota reflects similar strategies emerging elsewhere.

These involve major utilities – Green River Energy and Xcel Energy in the Minnesota example – and elected officials joining forces to support the lifting of bans against coal-fired power plants.

The about-face in Minnesota is also breathing new life into coal producers in the region, especially in North Dakota and Montana.

Even states with strong environmental movements are now considering similar moves.

It is not that new coal-fired plants would actually be constructed – a rather long-term project at best. In fact, neither of the companies in Minnesota have long-term plans to add any base load generation at all. Rather, it improves the prospects of other states exporting electricity generated from coal to neighbors that had been passing regulations against accepting it, for environmental reasons.

The same goes for nuclear. The genuine likelihood of a new nuclear power station is not the issue. The option of moving in that direction, if necessary, is.

The mantra, these days, is keeping our “future options” open.

The decision in Minnesota also provides what could well be a major change in another approach challenging coal.

In 2007, the state passed legislation that bars new coal-fired power plants… unless the owner buys carbon allowances or develops mitigation projects to offset emissions from the planned plant.

Such moves were tantamount to placing the environmental impact burden squarely on the generating companies. It translated into establishing a statewide target of cutting 15% of the carbon emissions by 2015 and 80% by 2050.

It is still too early to conclude that a massive shift back to coal is underway under the guise of national energy security.

Yet the longer the oil crisis remains, the greater the prospect that reliance on coal will be seen as the lesser of many evils.

Due to MENA unrest, reports of King Coal’s death may have been greatly exaggerated. (With my apologies to Mark Twain.)



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  1. rick
    March 11th, 2011 at 13:28 | #1

    I’m constantly amazed that we don’t concentrate on developing ways to better use the fuels that have in abundance (i.e. coal and natural gas).

  2. N C Mosley
    March 11th, 2011 at 13:29 | #2

    What is the future for natural gas?

    March 11th, 2011 at 13:47 | #3

    IT is a neccesary question.How do we, as a people invest,develop and produce new enviromentally respectful energy without damaging an economic recovery or put an heavy burden on our un and underemployed Countrypeople ? Certainly not by sending our reserch results to other Countries to produce and profit from.If we are to recover from our economic issues we must produce technalogy and goods that can be traded around the world.BAB

  4. Mason
    March 11th, 2011 at 15:03 | #4

    I believe the largest impact will be more drilling in Bakkens and the commerical transportation industries move to natural gas.

  5. Charles S. Wertalik
    March 11th, 2011 at 21:32 | #5

    It’s amazing how short-sighted legislators can be, especially with the sound and fury generated by environmental twits constantly in their ears. I guess the old saying, “never say never” still holds a lot of waer.

  6. Charles S. Wertalik
    March 11th, 2011 at 21:36 | #6

    It’s amazing how “What goes around, comes around” still holds a lot of water, eh?

  7. Reality99r
    March 12th, 2011 at 18:40 | #7

    It looks like common sense is once again coming around after facing reality.
    Great article Dr. Moors !!!!!!!!!

  8. Jeffrey
    March 13th, 2011 at 01:53 | #8

    The Energy Information Administration publishes regular listings of average electricity prices in all 50 states. Those with in-state coal resources generally provide the lowest cost power to ratepayers. It follows that switching to other fuels could impair economic development. Consumers should be willing, however, to pay more for coal power stations equipped with modern pollution controls, which according my information are lacking on 1/3 of all U.S. plants.

  9. Alan Harris
    March 21st, 2011 at 15:26 | #9

    Re: Local Minn.Co.& Recent Invention to Mitigate Coal Emissions

    Dear Dr.>>>

    During sometime last year [?], a local [priv?] Minn. co. was featured in the Mpls. “Strib.” Newspaper [Bus. Sec.], as having developed a product to significantly reduce carbon emissions(‘particularily’ for coal?!). I was/became interested because I had lost touch with status of the “Cap & Trade” legal requirements regarding supression/reduction of emissions.I’m going to research the news about this co. involved, because apparently “cap&trade” situation is still in flux, but apparently hasn’t been fully/partially implicated/instituted? With your status/connections, you may be able to exploit this opportunity!


    Alan D. Harris
    Eden Prairie, MN 55344

  10. Walter Mitchell
    March 28th, 2011 at 15:15 | #10

    First of all where is Caterpillar going? Are local, state, and U.S. taxes going to make it leave for Mexico or will it stay in the U.S. but just in another State? We cry that these corporations leave but those crying are not the stockholders. Be a stockholder and take your argument to the company meetings. At least do the latter.
    I would like to see these companies be clean anywhere they locate. Filth in the atmosphere goes worldwide. We all breathe it. We all eat it.
    My first home was an orange grove in the middle of the Louisiana
    sugar lands in Iberia Parish. Does anyone reading this know the Bayou Teche? Orange Grove? This was wonderful. After WW2 home became a farm in Northern Virginia an hour out from D.C. This was horse country. It was and is beautiful. I remember when a billboard was erected in the North Carolina mountains. Those who did that were burned at the stake. What was worse was the highway trash in Maryland in the 40s and 50s. All this means “Keep it Clean”.
    I live now in San Jose, Costa Rica. San Jose is the Maryland previously mentioned and with the air pollution.
    Do what you can. Keep where you live clean.
    Best wishes for a healthy future.

    April 8th, 2011 at 16:09 | #11

    Greetings from Oakmont, just a few miles from you. I read just a brief description of a technology to refine a usable hydrocarbon fuel from the solid CO2 that can be scrubbed from coal-fired generating plants. Do you have comments on whether this technology and the “clean coal” discussions have any real viability in the next ten years? Also, will the natural gas booms around the country just cancel out the need to maintain older coal-fired plants in this part of the country? Also, I understand that work is underway on gasification of coal underground, leaving most of the by-products underground. Can you share your perspective, please? Cleaner air and water have a real value in the mix, and we do need to develop all domestic sources.

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