Europe’s energy policy delivers the worst of all possible worlds
BERLIN – WHILE coal production and use plummet in America, in Europe “we have some kind of golden age of coal,” says Anne-Sophie Corbeau of the International Energy Agency. The amount of electricity generated from coal is rising at annualised rates of as much as 50% in some European countries. Since coal is by the far the most polluting source of electricity, with more greenhouse gas produced per kilowatt hour than any other fossil fuel, this is making a mockery of European environmental aspirations. How did it happen?
The story starts, again, with American shale gas. As American utilities shifted into gas, American coal miners had to look for new markets. They were doing so at a time when slowing Chinese demand was pushing down world coal prices, which fell by a third between August 2011 and August 2012 and is below $100 a tonne. These prices make European utilities willing buyers. European purchases of American coal rose by a third in the first six months of 2012.
Compared with the rock-bottom price of gas in America, coal is not all that cheap. But it is a bargain compared with the price of gas in Europe. Although gas can be carted around in liquid form, that is expensive and the infrastructure required is still patchy; for the most part, gas is shifted through pipelines, and tends to be used close to where it originates.
So whereas coal has world-market prices, gas has regional prices, often linked in one way or another to the oil price. Many European gas contracts were negotiated years ago with the Russian gas giant, Gazprom, and despite a wave of renegotiations European gas prices have stayed high.