Climate backfire: Coal-fired power jumps as natural gas prices soar

Coal-fired electricity generation climbed this year in the U.S. for the first time since the Obama administration, spurred by spiking natural gas prices, a setback for the Biden climate agenda and a sign that the president’s drilling crackdown may be backfiring.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said Monday that electricity generated by coal-fired plants is expected to jump by 22% in 2021 over last year’s levels for the first year-over-year increase since 2014.

The reason: the rising cost of natural gas, which began climbing in April and hit a 13-year high this month, fueled by pent-up pandemic demand that has overtaken production.

“The U.S. electric power sector has been generating more electricity from coal-fired power plants this year as a result of significantly higher natural gas prices and relatively stable coal prices,” the EIA said in its October short-term energy outlook.

Given that natural gas emits 50% to 60% less carbon dioxide in combustion than coal, the uptick in coal-fired generation represents a move in the wrong direction for President Biden. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change is the cornerstone of his agenda.

Coal is also making a comeback in China and Europe. The transition to green energy has exacerbated an energy crunch in some European nations.

“It’s no secret that the cleanest, most reliable fuel — nuclear — was murdered by the greens,” Clarice Feldman said in an Oct. 10 op-ed in the American Thinker. “Then natural gas, the second cleanest, became their target, so now many places are desperate for coal, the dirtiest option.”

The EIA predicted that the U.S. coal bump would be short-lived, given that utilities have retired about 30% of their coal generation capacity since 2010. No coal-fired plants have been built since 2013.

“For 2022, we forecast that U.S. coal-fired generation will decline about 5% in response to continuing retirements of generating capacity at coal power plants and slightly lower natural gas prices,” said the agency, the independent data and analysis arm of the Energy Department.

U.S. emissions have declined steadily since 2005, thanks largely to the transition from coal to natural gas in power-plant generation, fueled by abundant domestic supplies unleashed by the shale revolution and driven by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The Environmental Protection Agency reported in April 2020 that overall greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 10% from 2005 to 2018 and that power-sector emissions fell by 27%.

Since taking office in January, however, Mr. Biden has sought to phase out fossil fuels in favor of solar and wind energy. His administration has discouraged capital investment in drilling. Still, global demand for natural gas is surging as nations rebound from pandemic shutdowns.

Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the administration’s policies have handicapped the energy market.

“Faced with higher demand for heating, electricity and gasoline this winter, shale producers would normally be able to respond by increasing output within six months,” Mr. Ebell said. “But the actions already taken by the Biden-Harris administration have made investors and producers unwilling to make major investments on drilling new wells when long-term prospects for return on investment look so unpromising.”

On Thursday, the White House released its “road map to a climate-resilient economy,” which includes mobilizing private and public institutions to “address climate-related financial risk.”

“If this year has shown us anything, it’s that climate change poses an ongoing urgent and systemic risk to our economy and to the lives and livelihoods of everyday Americans, and we must act now,” White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy told reporters.

Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma warned that the Biden-backed infrastructure bill includes “the same energy policies that are threatening high energy prices and shortages this winter in Europe.”

“In particular, the Biden administration is suppressing investment in natural gas by overregulating and denying access to capital,” Ms. Sgamma said. “Producers would very much like to help bring down high prices by investing in new production, but they’re being denied capital.”

Mr. Biden signaled his opposition to fossil fuels early on by canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and freezing new drilling permits on federal lands. The Securities and Exchange Commission last month began pressuring companies to disclose more information about their climate risks.

“The SEC is planning climate change disclosure regulations that have the goal of reorienting financial markets to place climate change considerations over market return,” Ms. Sgamma said. “This is an extension of shareholder and climate change activism that have pressured banks and other financial institutions to drop oil and natural gas from their portfolios.”

She cited BNP Paribas and Bank of the West as examples of investors “that have publicly announced no further financing of fossil fuels.”

About 80% of U.S. energy generation comes from coal, petroleum and natural gas, but “U.S. natural gas prices have been more volatile than coal prices, so the cost of natural gas often determines the relative share of generation provided by natural gas and coal,” the EIA analysis said.

“Between 2015 and 2020, the cost of natural gas delivered to electric generators remained relatively low and stable,” the EIA said. “This year, however, natural gas prices have been much higher than in recent years. The year-to-date delivered cost of natural gas to U.S. power plants has averaged $4.93 per million British thermal units (Btu), more than double last year’s price.”

Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Mining Association, said the increased reliance on coal is a reminder that “low-cost electricity generated from coal continues to serve Americans as the most reliable source of energy.”

“It isn’t too late to reverse the trend of prematurely closing coal-fired power plants and coal mines, especially when electric utilities are scrambling to secure energy needed for the upcoming winter,” Mr. Dempsey said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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