During the second presidential debate on October 9, Republican presidential nominee (now President-Elect) Donald Trump claimed that “clean coal” could meet the energy needs of the United States for the next 1,000 years. Now that Mr. Trump will be in the position of making national energy policy, it’s worth examining that assertion.
First, does our nation really have 1,000 years’ worth of coal? No official agency thinks so. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates United States coal reserves at 477 billion short tons, a little over 500 years’ worth. But this calculation is probably highly misleading. A 2007 study by the National Academy of Sciences criticized the history of systematically inflated national coal reserves figures, while still allowing that, “there is probably sufficient coal to meet the nation’s coal needs for more than 100 years.” Still other studies ratchet that “100 years” down much further.
In 2009 I spent several months reviewing the available data and studies; the results were published as the book Blackout, which concluded that there is a strong “likelihood of [global coal] supply limits appearing relatively soon—within the next two decades.”
The U.S., China, Britain, and Germany have all already mined their best coal resources; what remains will be difficult and expensive to extract. Coal production from eastern states (West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania) has been on the skids for decades as a result of the depletion of economically minable reserves. The focus of the industry’s efforts has therefore largely shifted to Wyoming, but production there is now waning as well. A 2009 study by Clean Energy Action, a citizen group in Boulder, Colorado, confirmed that Wyoming and Montana hold a large portion of remaining U.S. coal reserves, but also concluded that 94 percent of reserves claimed by the mining industry and the U.S. Energy Information Agency are too expensive to extract. It’s probably safe to say that there are sufficient supplies of coal there and in the rest of the U.S. to permit mining to continue for decades into the future—but only at a declining rate.
In short, from a supply standpoint alone, the idea of 1,000 years of coal—enough to supply all of our energy needs for a millennium—is so exaggerated as to be laughable.
Does attaching the word “clean” to the word “coal” somehow change that picture? Hardly. For years, Americans have seen billboards and TV commercials touting “clean coal,” while politicians on both sides of the aisle have extolled its promise. The technology to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants has been tried and tested. Yet today almost none of the nation’s coal-fueled electricity-generating plants are “clean.”
Why the delay? The biggest problem for “clean coal” is that the economics don’t work. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is extremely expensive. That gives the power industry little incentive to implement it in the absence of a substantial carbon tax.
Why would implementing CCS be so expensive? To start, capturing and storing the carbon from coal combustion is estimated to consume 25 percent to 45 percent of the power produced, depending on the approach taken. That translates to not only higher prices for coal-generated electricity but also the need for more power plants to serve the same customer base. Other technologies designed to make carbon capture more efficient aren’t commercial at this point, and their full costs are unknown.