Coal Is Dying and It’s Never Coming Back — by Tim McDonnell (Mother Jones – April 14, 2015)

With or without help from President Obama.

Coal, the No. 1 cause of climate change, is dying. Last year saw a record number of coal plant retirements in the United States, and a study last week from Duke University found that since 2008, the coal industry shed nearly 50,000 jobs, while natural gas and renewable energy added four times that number. Even China, which produces and consumes more coal than the rest of the world put together, is expected to hit peak coal use within a decade, in order to meet its promise to President Barack Obama to reduce its carbon emissions starting in 2030.

According to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), this is all the fault of President Barack Obama’s “war on coal”—specifically the administration’s new limits for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, which probably will force many power companies to burn less coal. If there is a war, McConnell has long been the field marshal of the defending army. His latest maneuver came last month when he called on state lawmakers to simply ignore the administration’s new rules, in order to resist Obama’s “attack on the middle class.”

His logic, apparently, is that if Kentucky can stave off Obama long enough, the coal industry still has a glorious future ahead. That logic is fundamentally flawed. While Obama’s tenure will probably speed up the country’s transition to cleaner energy, the scales had already tipped against coal long before he took office. Kentucky’s coal production peaked in 1990, and coal industry employment peaked all the way back in the 1920s.

The scales won’t tip back after he leaves. The “war on coal” narrative isn’t simply misleading, it also distracts from the very real problem of how to prepare coal mining communities and energy consumers (i.e., everyone) for an approaching future in which coal is demoted to a bit role after a century at center stage.

That’s the conclusion of a sweeping new account of the coal industry, Coal Wars, authored by leading energy analyst Richard Martin. The book dives deep into a simple truth: As long as we’re still burning coal for the majority of our energy, all the solar panels, electric cars, and vegetarian diets in the world won’t do a thing to stop global warming. Saving the planet starts with getting off coal.

The good news, Martin reports, is that transition is already underway, regardless of stonewalling by congressional Republicans, and with or without Obama’s new regulations. Martin documents evidence of coal’s decline from the mountain villages of Kentucky to the open pit mines of Wyoming, and from lavish industry parties in Shanghai to boardrooms in Germany.

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