There’s a war on coal in America—or at least, that’s what the coal industry says. They’re not entirely wrong. Coal prices in the U.S. are falling and coal plants are being retired. Most of that change is being driven by what analysts refer to as “market conditions”—otherwise known as shale gas and fracking, which has driven prices for natural gas down, down, down. That’s encouraged utilities to phase out coal in favor of cleaner natural gas—a transition that has been accelerated by federal environmental regulations that will increasingly limit the sort of air pollution associated with old coal plants.
It’s no surprise then that the coal industry pushed hard for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election—or that coal bosses like Robert Murray of Ohio-based Murray Energy fired dozens of employees after the election as the industry went into survival mode. Though perhaps Mr. Murray could have saved some of the $100,000 the company donated to the conservative super PAC American Crossroads for payroll costs.
But if the future of coal is looking dim in the U.S. with cheap natural gas and a Democrat in the White House, it’s as bright as a steel furnace in much of the rest of the world. In 2010 the global coal trade rose by 13.4%, reaching 1.08 billion metric tons. In a new report, the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that nearly 1,200 new coal plants are at least in the planning stages worldwide. Though the projects are spread across the globe, more than 3/4 of the new plants are set to be built in India and China. If every one of those plants were to be built and activated, it would add 1.4 million MW of coal-fired electricity capacity to the global grid. Since coal is already the single biggest contributor to man-made global warming, an unchecked global coal building spree really would be game over for the climate—no matter what happens in the U.S.