The U.S. cannot afford four more years of pandering to coal.
Never has climate change felt so real as waking up two weeks ago to orange skies, darkened by the smoke and ash from dozens of fires throughout California and across the American West. Trump’s response? “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”
The Trump Administration has spent the last four years pandering to U.S. coal. Even before moving into the White House, Trump appointed Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, a lawyer who rejects climate change and who had spent his career suing the EPA. From there ensued a systematic dismantling of U.S. environmental protections, ending the moratorium on leasing federal land for coal mining, suspending the Clean Power plan, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, and weakening the Mercury rule.
Despite all this, U.S. coal is in retreat. But if we continue to tear down environmental protections, this retreat could be delayed or reversed. We don’t have time to waste. For mitigating climate change, for the quality of air, for human health, and for providing a sustainable example for the rest of the world, it is time to stop burning coal.
The Case against Coal
A large and growing body of scientific evidence documents the societal costs of climate change. One particularly alarming recent example is the evidence from the Greenland Ice Sheet. Ice is being lost at up to one meter per year, seven times faster than during the 1990s. Climate change in the Arctic is accelerating, matching what used to be worst-case scenarios.
There is also a vast literature on the societal costs of air pollution. Burning coal emits large amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates – pollutants linked with stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, respiratory disease and asthma. Coal kills.
Adding all this up, the external cost of coal is over 5 cents per kilowatt hour. The map below shows that in parts of the U.S. where coal is a large part of generation, the external cost of electricity generation exceeds 6 cents and, in many places, 10 cents per kilowatt hour.
Why would we continue to burn coal when the all-in cost of grid-scale solar and wind is less than 4 cents? The answer, of course, is that these externalities are not priced. If we priced externalities then coal would immediately become unprofitable. And even if you don’t think demand response, batteries, and hydro can address intermittency, then natural gas certainly can.
From the very beginning, Trump made coal a centerpiece of his campaign, promising coal miners he would put them back to work.
Trump went on to pummel Hillary Clinton in West Virginia, winning every county and 68% of the vote. Trump also narrowly won Pennsylvania including most of Pennsylvania’s coal region. It is hard to say how much Trump’s coal promises weighed in these outcomes, but the message clearly resonated with many voters.
Some have criticized Trump for not living up to his coal promises. It indeed made little sense to declare, “We are back. The coal industry is back.” at a West Virginia rally in August 2018. But the truth is that the administration has done just about everything they possibly could over the last four years to favor coal over renewables.
“We love clean, beautiful West Virginia coal. We love it. And you know that’s indestructible stuff. In times of war, in times of conflict, you can blow up those windmills. They fall down real quick. You can blow up those pipelines. They go like this and you’re not going to fix them too fast. You can do a lot of things to those solar panels. But you know what you can’t hurt? Coal.” – Trump in West Virginia, August 2018
Too Big a Risk
If your only issue in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election is to protect U.S. coal, then it is clear who you should vote for.
There’s a different choice for the rest of us, however, for those who want to breathe clean air, or who have a family member with asthma, or who think that rising temperatures and shrinking ice sheets signal a real climate crisis. For those of us who want the U.S. to be a leader in climate policy — it is time for the country to restore its environmental protections and stop burning coal.
It won’t be easy. The most inefficient coal plants have already closed so those that are left tend to be more efficient with lower operating costs. And until we price carbon and other externalities, coal continues to enjoy a large implicit subsidy which means that the playing field is inherently uneven.
I never would have expected to see some of the things we’ve seen in the last four years. Desperate incumbents will go to great lengths to maintain their market share. Let’s not be surprised again.
Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.
Suggested citation: Davis, Lucas. “Time to Vote out Coal” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, September 21, 2020, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2020/09/21/time-to-vote-out-coal/
Lucas Davis is the Jeffrey A. Jacobs Distinguished Professor in Business and Technology at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a Faculty Affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas, a coeditor at the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He received a BA from Amherst College and a PhD in Economics from the University of Wisconsin. His research focuses on energy and environmental markets, and in particular, on electricity and natural gas regulation, pricing in competitive and non-competitive markets, and the economic and business impacts of environmental policy.