A lump of coal smudged the Democrats’ climate bill

By Thomas Gaulkin, August 11, 2022

The 730-page Inflation Reduction Act passed by the US Congress this week has been widely praised as a welcome, if imperfect, step toward preventing the worst effects of climate change. But the bill is also “almost all carrots, hardly any sticks,” and some critics argue it was passed on the basis of a too-costly compromise with fossil-fuel-friendly folks like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

Manchin—a self-described “son of the West Virginia coal fields” who last year earned more than three times his Senate salary from holdings in a coal brokerage firm—is the main character in every chronicle of how this new climate package was passed. His opposition to the earlier Build Back Better version of the bill (and its provisions that would have penalized power plants for missing clean energy targets) nearly scuttled the Democrats’ push for major climate legislation this year, so his surprise decision to support the revised legislation has inevitably raised eyebrows.

Many of the new concessions that Manchin secured in exchange for his yes vote support the oil and natural gas sector more broadly than they do coal, including various tax incentives and commitments for new drilling and pipeline projects (some of which also run through West Virginia). But the enterprising senator is still bullish on the bill’s benefits to coal. In an August 4 letter to the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, he wrote, “I have not wavered in my advocacy for innovation over elimination,” and then detailed all the reasons coal producers shouldn’t worry.

“I have fought for and delivered billions of dollars to help the coal industry transition by investing in the technologies necessary to continue using coal as a reliable source of power generation,” Manchin wrote in his letter. He was referring to carbon capture systems known as CCUS (for carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration), which many energy producers and climate scientists alike believe are an important part of the solution in the quest to limit CO2 emissions. The Inflation Reduction Act provides specific tax incentives for future development and use of CCUS, which some climate groups worry will justify postponing urgently needed closure of coal plants. In its most recent report on mitigation of climate change, the IPCC estimated that limiting average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would require a 95 percent reduction in use of coal for electricity production by 2050—assuming the remaining plants are all fitted with carbon capture systems.

Among the other tax credits in the bill are some that reward clean electricity investment by “energy communities,” those whose economies are now or were formerly reliant on fossil fuels—including, explicitly, areas where coal-fired electric generating units were shut down after 2009. Eight hundred and thirty five coal-fired generators were permanently taken offline in the United States over the past twenty years. But as shown in the map above, only 159 of the 554 generators still running today are penciled in for retirement over the next two decades, representing around 60 gigawatts of generating capacity—or less than a third of the total power currently produced by burning coal.

And the number of currently operating coal plants with functional carbon capture and sequestration systems—the technology Manchin believes will help innovate, not eliminate?


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