By Greg Walcher
January 9, 2023 - Does the rest of the world know something we don’t?
A December report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) confirms that worldwide use of coal hit an all-time high in 2022, following a huge increase in 2021, and is on track to increase further in 2023. The report was barely mentioned by most of the media. That may be because Americans have already moved beyond coal, culturally and politically. U.S. coal consumption continued to decline, bucking the global trend.
American consumers have become convinced that switching from coal to other sources is good for the environment, because it lowers carbon dioxide emissions. They are not alone in that belief. In fact, the IEA’s own press release decries the environmental impact: “That sharp rise contributed significantly to the largest ever annual increase in global energy-related CO2 emissions… (now) at their highest level in history.”
How can that be, when the U.S. — long the world’s largest energy consumer — has all but abandoned coal? That was a massive cultural and economic shift, considering that coal accounted for two-thirds of all electric generation in the U.S. a couple of decades ago. American policymakers were determined, though, and the “war on coal,” as many called it, was launched with a vengeance.
Michael Bloomberg almost singlehandedly underwrote the Sierra Club’s original “Beyond Coal” campaign, to the tune of $80 million. Backed by federal anti-coal regulations under President Obama, the plan was astonishingly successful. More than half the nation’s coal plants have closed, 290 out of 530. In 2019, Bloomberg announced another $500 million campaign to “close every coal-fired power plant in the United States.”
Predictably, that success also killed many of the mines that supplied the coal for those power plants. Over 760 coal mines closed within eight years. Colorado was the eighth largest coal producing state and had more than 2,000 coal miners. Half those jobs are now gone, and the state has slipped to 10th.
Colorado has only six coal-fired power-plants left — one is in the process of converting to natural gas and the other five are scheduled for permanent closure. Nationwide, another 257 coal plants are scheduled for closure, according to a Reuters report. The nation’s largest power providers — Duke, Xcel, Dominion, Alliant, Ameren, Berkshire Hathaway, and a host of others — are well on the way to abandoning their most abundant and cheapest power source.
You would think such a massive shift away from coal would alter the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, but it has had no measurable effect. There is a simple explanation. While Americans are determined to eliminate the use of coal, the rest of the world is ignoring their example, ramping up the use of coal.
The three largest coal producers — China, India, and Indonesia — all set production records in 2022, and European Union countries substantially increased the use of coal, at least partly to wean themselves off Russian natural gas.
China consumed 4.25 billion tons of coal in 2022, and India another 1.1 billion tons. Other Asian nations accounted for another 900 million tons and the European Union nearly 500 million more. Even the United States, despite its anti-coal policies, consumed 4.65 million tons in 2022. Ironically, so many mines have closed that some of that coal had to be imported, mostly from Columbia, Canada, and Indonesia. Altogether, the world used over eight billion tons of coal in 2022, barely 5% of it in the U.S.
Has the rest of the world has learned something Americans haven’t? No, but others might have learned something Americans have forgotten. Namely that abundant and affordable energy creates prosperity and changes lives.
Today’s Americans may take that for granted, but they should remember even history’s richest man, John D. Rockefeller, lived without air conditioning, feared now-obsolete diseases, and traveled slowly and uncomfortably on dirt roads and dusty trains. He had many servants to prepare his food but could not get fresh peaches out of season, and never tasted a burrito, a pizza, or a Chilean sea bass. Ordinary Americans now get fresh food year-round, at reasonable prices, from all over the world. They enjoy interstate highways, international airports, central heating, indoor plumbing, regular trash pickup and antibiotics.
Thanks to the blessings of a prosperous economy made possible by rich natural resources and abundant, affordable energy, Americans are now free of the everyday drudgery of the past — plowing fields, chopping wood, hauling water, milking cows and dying young. The rest of the world wants to end that cycle and understands the critical role of affordable energy.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.