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Is It Too Little, Too Late For Coal?



By Rob Port

March 9, 2020 - With news of financial struggles at Coal Creek Station, a major coal-fired power plant operated in central North Dakota by Great River Energy, some of our elected officials have sprung into action.

In a recent interview with me, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven said, "We have to make sure coal is treated fairly."

What's being done to that end?

At a recent hearing of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Committee, the Republican senator pressed Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette to expand an upcoming visit to North Dakota to include coal country.

Both Hoeven and Sen. Kevin Cramer, also a North Dakota Republican, have told me they are pressuring the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to "fairly value" coal-fired power. Which is to say that when the bureaucrats are calculating how much the various flavors of electricity is worth (our energy markets aren't markets at all), they want the fact that coal can operate continuously and provide baseload power to be considered.

It should scare the bejesus out of you that this wasn't already a factor.

For those of us who live in the Upper Midwest, always-on power is a matter of life and death for many months in a given year. If our homes and businesses lose power during arctic weather, it's not just inconvenient.

People can die.

Hoeven and Cramer have also teamed up on an amendment to the American Energy Innovation Act, which would repeal the one-year extension of the lavish production tax credit subsidy for the wind industry.

That extension was slipped into an unrelated bill at the end of last year despite the wind industry's cleary dishonest claims that they wanted it to end.

Repealing it is the right thing to do, though given how dysfunctional Congress is, the subsidy might well expire again before the amendment can become law.

The senators are also working on reforming and expanding tax credits for carbon capture and sequestration projects. These are 48A and 45Q credits in the IRS code, and I won't write too much more about them lest your eyes, from an overweening sense of boredom, roll out of their sockets and under the couch.

Suffice it to say that these are essential reforms critical for improving coal as a reliable and plentiful source of energy.

But is this enough?

Self-appointed experts on social media will tell you that coal's demise isn't really about wind so much as competition from natural gas. The same innovations which revolutionized North Dakota's oil fields have also unlocked a veritable ocean of domestic natural gas.

The markets are awash in it.

That's a good thing, and coal should have to compete.

Coal could compete much better with all comers if it weren't hamstrung by the unfair political advantages given to sources like wind and solar.

Their massive expansion (wind, in particular, in our region) has been built on the back of political favoritism and it has distorted things in deeply harmful ways I'm not sure can be easily fixed.

We've made a terrible mistake, and for now, it's just the coal industry paying the price.

How long until we're all feeling it in the form of higher utility rates and a less resilient energy grid?