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If no coal, then what?


Even as the US market for coal appears to be declining (first due to market pressure from cheaper natural gas and now EPA GHG rules), US exports of its coal abroad has been a sore spot. Tina Casey has an interesting post over at The Energy Collective where she argues that if support for Keystone XL evaporates and Secretary of State John Kerry is able to lock us in to a global climate pact in 2015, then US coal is on numbered days:

This is where Kerry comes in. According to the Times, Kerry is looking ahead to the negotiation of a major climate pact in 2015, which means that coal-hungry China will be front and center.

Now let’s connect the dots. If the 2015 pact does happen, and if it sets some meaningful milestones for transitioning out of coal fired power production, the global market for US coal will start to dry up.

I think it’s important to discuss what the alternatives would be if there are global limits on coal consumption. If coal is off the table, then you need something that provides generally the same benefits of coal: easily dispatchable, high energy density, compatible with existing infrastructure etc. But it needs to avoid the GHG emissions of coal. Renewables and energy storage are on the table, but I think natural gas would be an appealing alternative to coal in global markets - at least in the short to medium term.

And perhaps as part of a climate pact, the US opens up more of its natural gas resources for export, which could then serve countries like China and Germany. The US would need to expedite the LNG export permitting process and there would need to be some concession from the chemical industry (who uses natural gas as a feedstock for many processes, like making fertilizer) who are worried about rising prices.

In short: yes, it’s an interesting idea, but perhaps more interesting will be the alternatives that are acceptable under a “no coal” scenario.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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