By Max Witynski
Coal is in decline as an energy source. In recent decades, coal combustion has fallen from 50% of electricity generation to 20% of electricity generation in the United States, as natural gas and renewables like wind and solar have become increasingly cost-competitive.
But after generations of investment in coal-fired power plants, transitioning away from enduring coal sources may prove more difficult: Under some current forecasts, more than 10% of our energy could still come from coal in 2050—which means several more decades of planet-warming carbon emissions if we do not implement significant policy changes. Meeting key climate goals will depend in part on a speedier transition.
Mark N. Templeton is a clinical professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he also directs the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic. As a research affiliate of the Energy Policy Institute at UChicago (EPIC), he recently authored a chapter in the new handbook, The U.S. Energy and Climate Roadmap, featuring policy recommendations about smoothing the coal transition.
In the following Q&A, Templeton explains why it’s important to leverage the social cost of carbon as a tool for making key government decisions about coal mining and cleanup while remaining mindful of environmental justice and coal communities as we transition to other sources of electricity.
As the energy landscape in the U.S. changes, how can we ensure a transition for coal mining communities that is fair and just?
An important question. Though the absolute number of employees at coal mines in the U.S. is relatively small compared to many other industries, an economic restructuring like this one can have a significant impact on families and communities—especially given that the closing of a single mine can have a disproportionate impact in a smaller community where the mine was a major source of wages. We have an obligation to work with coal communities and help them through this transition.
One thing I’ve suggested is that there might be opportunities to leverage the geography of coal: Abandoned mines, which have associated cleanup and reclamation needs, are often located close to where the workers are already, so former miners could potentially be employed in making sure that those sites are dealt with safely and responsibly. Cleaning up abandoned mines also helps to ensure that those communities have clean water in the future. Finally, the Biden administration should also explore options like job training for other fields.
Many people don’t know about the scale of the federal government’s role in coal mining and the transition away from coal. Why is it so substantial?
There are at least three big reasons. First, in recent years, approximately 40% of the coal mined in the U.S. is mined on federal land. That’s a large percentage for which the government, as the owner, is making determinations about whether to lease the coal, which in turn has an impact on the price and availability of coal in the market.
Second, the federal government also has regulatory authority on the combustion side. It can set emissions limits for carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming, criteria pollutants like sulfur dioxide that cause acid rain, and toxic substances like mercury that poison our environment.
Third, the government can play a role in smoothing the energy transition and in making sure it is as environmentally and socially responsible as possible. That means cleaning up abandoned coal mines and coal ash pits that have the potential to contaminate groundwater. It might also mean mitigating the environmental risks associated with coal bankruptcies and providing job training and resources for people who have relied upon coal for their livelihoods.
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