It’s time to renew promise for fossil fuels’ future

Newton B. Jones, Intl. President

“All-of-the-above” remains best energy strategy

EARLY IN HIS first White House term, President Barack Obama took a public position for an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. That strategy asserted that every energy source should be part of America’s portfolio, including fossil fuels, nuclear power, and renewables.

The Boilermakers applauded the inclusion of fossil fuels in this strategy and the president’s early, and substantial, investment in clean coal technology. But since that public commitment was made, the administration has put forth a series of severe and costly regulations resulting in mass shutdowns of coal-fired power units. Anti-coal environmental groups have expanded their influence with federal and state governments — and with U.S. and state environmental protection agencies. Those groups have demonized fossil fuels and caused costly delays in new coal-fueled plant construction by filing numerous lawsuits.

Our union supported President Obama for reelection as the best choice for labor issues and working families. His labor record has been exceptional. Now we need his leadership to renew an all-of-the-above energy strategy. This means engaging Congress to formulate new legislation for climate change that will guide the EPA to establish practical, achievable solutions to fossil fuel emissions.

We get it: climate change is real

WHILE CLIMATE CHANGE has its skeptics, the Boilermakers union is not one of them. The body of evidence is too large not to be convincing. A recent report by the Global Carbon Project (GPC) estimates that, at current rates of growth for greenhouse gas emissions, our planet could warm by 5 degrees Celsius, or 9 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2100. This would have catastrophic implications for life on Earth. Obviously, something has to be done, and soon.

But we cannot abruptly shut down U.S. coal plants without creating massive job loss, economic turmoil, and an energy supply that works only some of the time. Yet the complete elimination of coal (and ultimately all fossil fuels) is precisely what many environmentalists are seeking — and the EPA seems willing to oblige them, with enormously expensive and technologically challenging regulations.

There are many reasons why ending fossil fuel use in the United States is a terrible idea. Coal-fueled energy alone accounts for about 36 percent of the electricity this country uses, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s a major share of our nation’s power. Coal is also one of the most reliable fuel sources, unlike intermittent solar and wind. Moreover, coal is plentiful and relatively cheap.

Even if we stopped all U.S. coal use tomorrow — and endured the resulting economic hardships for those who make their living in this industry — the benefit to the world’s climate might be fleeting. Why? Because the growth in CO2 emissions is largely coming from developing countries. China has already surpassed the United States as the number-one user of coal in the world. India is not far behind. Developing countries have made it clear that economic growth will take priority over environmental concerns.

Failure to achieve a workable energy policy could send us toward an energy cliff no less dangerous than the fiscal one.

The GPC reported that in 2011 carbon emissions rose 9.9 percent in China and 7.5 percent in India. Meanwhile, emissions dropped by 1.8 percent in the United States and 2.8 percent in Europe (even before the new EPA regulations caused hundreds of coal-fired power plants to shut down).

Worldwide, 1,199 new coal-fired power plants are being considered, according to the World Resources Institute, about 75 percent of them destined for China and India. A mere 3 percent (36 plants) are being considered in the United States, and even that small number is in doubt, considering the EPA’s stringent new regulations.

While developed countries pursue higher-cost, less dependable renewable energy sources, industries that depend on competitive energy prices have been moving to China, India, and other developing countries. Ironically, the developed world ends up losing industries to fast-growing, high carbon-emitting economies and buying back products that carry a heavy carbon footprint. Carbon-emitting industries are not going away, they are just moving to the developing world. And with those industries go good-paying jobs. Clearly, this arrangement is not helping to reduce the greenhouse gas problem.

Even the current bonanza of shale gas and oil under development in the United States — which has many energy producers switching fuel sources — is likely a short-term solution to low-cost energy, as world demand continues to soar and prices begin to rise.

Can U.S. technology lower emissions worldwide?

OVER THE PAST several decades, substantial advances have taken place in the United States (and some other countries) in reducing harmful emissions. Bag houses, scrubbers, dry and wet precipitators, and other emission controls have vastly reduced particulate matter, NOx, SOx, mercury and other emissions. In addition, new supercritical and ultra-supercritical plants are burning coal at higher temperatures and pressures, reducing the amount of coal needed to produce the same energy output as comparable older units. Boilermakers have been at the forefront of installing these environmental controls and advanced systems.

The industry has also made great strides in new technologies to capture and store CO2. Southern Company, for instance, manages and operates the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Carbon Capture Center in Alabama, where scientists and technology developers from government, industry, and universities collaborate on ways to reduce emissions and permanently store CO2. Other initiatives are taking place across the United States and in other technologically advanced countries.

Carbon capture and storage still faces hurdles before being adopted commercially. It will require more time and investment; but if we are serious about an all-of-the-above energy strategy, we need the commitment of all stakeholders. And the incessant demonization of coal and other fossil fuels must stop.

Advances in carbon reduction are only possible if there is a market in which to sell them. If coal-fueled plants in the U.S. continue to decline amid pressures from the EPA and environmentalists, and lacking presidential and congressional commitment to move them ahead, then innovators will see little point in developing those advances.

If on the other hand there is the political will to encourage their development and to support world-leading examples of clean coal use in the United States, those advanced technologies can be made economically feasible. And they can then be made available globally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

We need energy leadership now

FOR YEARS, CONGRESS has failed to enact a comprehensive, forward-looking energy policy. Their failure and a 2007 Supreme Court decision requiring the EPA to treat carbon dioxide as a regulated emission under the Clean Air Act have opened the floodgates of new EPA regulations targeting fossil fuels.

President Obama and Congress need to work together now to frame a modern energy policy and to pass appropriate legislation that builds on the technology advances already achieved — and to temper the EPA’s flood of industry- and job-killing emission rules.

It’s time to get back to a rational approach to energy. It’s time for Washington to take the lead with an all-of-the-above strategy that strengthens our industries, preserves jobs, and puts us on a sustainable path to world-leading, clean fossil fuel use.

And it’s not just about power plants. Manufacturing, cement making, shipbuilding, steel mills, pulp and paper, and other industries require affordable energy to compete globally. If we are to attract and expand these industries — and create the kind of job growth needed to restore our economy and rebuild the middle class — reliable, competitively-priced energy must be available. Failure to achieve a workable energy policy could send us toward an energy cliff with repercussions no less dangerous than the fiscal one.

We cannot wait months or years for a solution. We urge the president and Congress to move on energy early in 2013 to address the economic impact of EPA regulations with a reasonable all-of-the-above energy policy for America.