From a science angle, President Trump’s State of the Union address had little to offer. There were a few mentions of human health advances, but not much else. One line, however, caught our attention:
“We have ended the war on American Energy — and we have ended the war on clean coal,” said President Trump. “We are now an exporter of energy to the world.”
Examining the energy industry and climate change nexus is a specialty of Miles O’Brien Productions. After researching these stories for some time now and meeting people on both the pro- and anti-coal sides, we can confidently say: President Trump is wrong about coal.
Let’s start unpack the President’s statement in reverse order. First, are we exporting energy to the world?
Well, it depends what source of energy we’re talking about. In 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that the country was exporting petroleum products and coal and importing natural gas and crude oil. The headline was “U.S. energy imports and exports to come into balance for first time since 1950s.”
According to official EIA data, overall energy imports have been declining and exports have been increasing since 2006, so it was just a matter of time before market trends pushed the U.S. into net exporter territory. Claiming this as a win for his administration is a pretty duplicitous move by President Trump.
What about ending a war on clean coal?
Now this is blatantly false. Sure, President Obama did impose regulations on the coal industry that President Trump quickly repealed, but this was hardly a war. More importantly, the coal industry has been on the decline for decades.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics has shown that over 100,000 coal mining jobs have evaporated since the 1980s. This has happened due to the rise of American natural gas and renewables and the general increase in automation in all mining operations around the world.
President Trump’s rollbacks have also decidedly not revived the industry. Since he took office, only 500 jobs have been added, a paltry 1% increase. And with another coal mine set to close, that number will drop down to a gain of a mere 130 jobs.
This is nothing to say of the fact that “clean” coal is a bit of a unicorn.
“Coal continues to be cheap and plentiful, which is why it has always been an important energy source,” wrote biogeochemist Dr. Emily Bernhardt for us back in May. But, even with improvements in reducing CO2 emissions from coal plants, “[coal’s] low price hides the costs that are being paid by the people who must live in landscapes fundamentally altered by surface coal mines, breathe air polluted by coal or mining dust, or drink water that has been contaminated by coal mine or coal combustion residues.”
WATCH: Miles travels to West Virginia to see the effects of coal mining first-hand.
Finally, is there a war on American Energy?
This, also, is untrue. Both conventional and new sources of energy had double-digit job growth overall in the last year of Obama’s presidency.
Instead, the biggest change in the industry has been the change in the makeup of energy sources.
“In the coming years, despite current federal policy initiatives, the electric power industry is expected to stay the course toward cleaner energy sources,” wrote Scott Smith in a Deloitte power and utilities 2018 outlook report. “When it comes to new build, almost all planned generation capacity for the next five years is renewable or natural gas-fired. Why? Because wind, solar, and natural gas are often the lowest cost resources, and both experience and research have shown they’re what utility customers want.”
Using these cleaner sources of energy is a positive step in the fight against climate change–a concept that was entirely absent from the President’s State of the Union address.
“Unless many nations act, today’s fossil fuel activities will impact the earth–ocean–atmosphere system long into the future,” wrote geologist Dr. Susan Hovorka for us in June.
And, perhaps, a version of clean coal could be a way to tackle this issue.
“One of the portfolio of technologies now available to reduce emissions from our existing fossil fuel–based infrastructure is Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS,” wrote Hovorka. CSS is the process of capturing CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels and injecting them into the ground, where they have been shown to stay put.
WATCH: Miles visits the largest carbon capture coal plant in the country.
“Almost all roadmaps to reduce CO2 emissions have shown that, without CCS, adoption of technologies that reduce emissions decreases and the cost of reducing emissions increases,” wrote Hovorka. “With CCS, meaningful, verifiable, technically feasible, and permanent reductions in atmospheric greenhouse-gas emissions can be achieved in the short term and will be less costly than if we don’t use CCS.”
The main barrier to implementing CCS technologies is cost–but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about them. And if the President wants to talk coal, this is the way the conversation needs to go.