Here in Wyoming, we keep on fighting the coal battles and believe somehow that we’re winning the war.
And the “War on Coal,” no matter how much the Wyoming congressional delegation cries, seems like a very real thing.
The truth may be: Wyoming hasn’t taken it seriously enough, believing that press releases with strongly - worded statements from politicians would be enough to frighten the Environmental Protection Agency or the Obama administration into easing off the coal restrictions.
And if it’s true that Wyoming has not taken the war on coal seriously enough, we don’t believe the country has taken it seriously enough either.
The perception of coal consumption in America is tall smokestacks belching thick, black smoke. The perception of coal is dirty, dusty and oily.
But perception is a lot different than reality. Coal has become cleaner and utility companies have spent small fortunes on technology that makes emissions better. Much of the smoke coming from stacks isn’t actually smoke, but steam.
True enough: Coal is not completely clean. The only coal that has zero impact or that is clean is that which still is in the ground.
However, opponents of coal-fired power plants have an easy sell to the public when coal is the enemy. They play off a perception, not a reality.
What would be a lot harder to sell folks would be the huge hike in power bills if all the coal-fired electricity generation were cut out of the grid. Currently most estimates peg coal-fired power plant generation to make up nearly 40 percent of the supply.
Try cutting 40 percent of the power out of the grid. What would happen? Blackouts? Huge hikes in power bills? Some very testy folks?
Whatever the answer to that theoretical question should be answered by those who believe cutting coal out of the energy picture is as simple as outlawing it.
We’ve heard plenty from the EPA and the Obama administration about the dramatic new rules for coal-fired plants. Essentially, the administration is asking the impossible, essentially banning coal without using those words. Technology simply doesn’t exist to implement the so-called “clean coal” standards economically. And energy producers know it.
Most speculate that coal’s loss will be other natural resources’ gain. For example, pulling coal from the market will likely mean a huge increase in demand for natural gas, the most likely replacement fuel for coal.
If natural gas is the go-to energy replacement for coal, that’s good news for Wyoming, which also sees strong economic benefits from natural gas.
But like all supply-and-demand propositions, natural gas will unlikely stay cheap forever. And, the cost of natural gas will dictate the price of energy.
We’re concerned anytime an industry produces something as essential as power and only relies on one generation source. We believe America should ensure that there are a variety of ways to generate power so that the country is not beholden to only one fuel.
This might be a wonderful opportunity for the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources to play a leadership role either developing more clean-coal technology or working to help pioneer hybrid generation plants that rely on a variety of sources, for example, wind, natural gas and solar.
Finally, with every passing new regulation it seems as if our lawmakers hope the fist-pounding, and the press releases will somehow grab the attention of the federal government. We like their hope but we don’t share their same optimism. Instead, we believe that Wyoming must seriously consider what the war on coal will mean for the state of Wyoming if it is on the losing side. We must not only just sock away money in case coal is edged out of our energy portfolio, whether domestic or abroad. We must do a better job of articulating that reality. There are far too many communities that rely on coal for jobs, and the state depends on revenue from the coal industry. We also must do a better job telling power-hungry customers what blocking coal means for their power bills.
Now is the time to quit talking about how we wish things were and start discussing how they might actually be.