Trump’s War on Coal III

The US coal collapse is speeding up as predicted.


Previous posts in this series: Donald Trump’s War on Coal , Trump’s War on Coal II

In January I looked at the state of US coal and concluded:


It is highly probable that demand for coal will fall by the order of magnitude implied by the FERC data. My prediction is that the pace of closures, and the loss of mining jobs, will roughly triple.

I did not predict that it would happen so fast.

FERC regularly updates a table including planned retirements of coal generating plants up to three years ahead. The April table gave 13,992 MW. In May this rose to 17,054 MW: an increase of 3 GW in one month, just over 1% of the remaining capacity.

It’s technically possible, given the rolling horizon, that these 3 GW were already in the spreadsheet for May 2022 and the forecast has just caught up. This is very unlikely, and makes little difference even if it were true.

The obvious interpretation is that utility executives across the United States have concluded:

1. Their coal plants are increasingly uneconomic compared for gas, renewables, and storage, and carry growing reputational and policy risks at federal (>2020) and state level.

2. The Trump Administration’s policy to save coal is a sham. Even rhetorically, it is disappearing: Trump did not mention coal in his lastest set-pieces on energy (July 8 remarks, fact sheet).

3. They might as well bite the bullet now. Nothing will get better for coal.

The information the utilities supply on closures to FERC, the federal agency responsible for the reliability of the national electricity supply, must be hard. These aren’t predictions but decisions. There is more of the same they are still mulling over. And once they have decided to close a plant, there are pressures to bring the date forward. The collapse will go on speeding up.

With oversight from Washington in the hands of feckless, inept and amoral ex-lobbyists, the end of coal mining in America is coming at an appalling social cost. David Roberts at Vox documents one example, the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Wyoming. The short version:

1. The mines were run by Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha made a very bad bet on Appalachian coal and declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015.

2. Te restructuring involved abandoning critical health benefits to 4,580 non-union miners and spouses, slashing the cleanup liabilities, multi-million dollar bonuses to executives, and spinning off the mines.

3. The buyer of the two mines was Blackjewel, run by an Appalachian grifter called Jeff Hoops. Hoops had apparently no plan to nurse the mines back to viability. Instead he milked the cash flow for more insider bonuses while not paying taxes and other creditors. IANAL but it looks to me like a classic long-firm fraud.

4. Blackjewel suddenly collapsed two weeks ago in a cloud of bouncing cheques, some for wages. It is heading for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and a full liquidation. The state will be left with the uncovered cleanup liabilities, and support for the abandoned miners, assuming they are nor just left to cough their lungs out untreated in the rugged Western way.

5. Roberts does not go into this, but I assume that the political influence of Philip Anschutz, the wind baron of Wyoming, has been strengthened by the fiasco. Wyoming will be less helpful in future to his coal rivals. The state may even go after Mr. Hoops. Good hunting.

PS: let me advertise an old proposal I made here in 2010: nationalize coal. It really is the most humane way to manage the rundown of an entire sector in the public interest. US coal companies are to a first approximation worthless, once you include the cleanup, pension and health liabilities they are trying to evade. So the fair price to shareholders is $0 a share. Bondholders and unsecured creditors? How about their taking the same haircut they are getting anyway under Chapter 11 bankruptcy? The taxpayer will be on the hook for the shortfall in the funds for cleanup, pensions and health, but that’s inevitable in any scenario. What nationalization saves is the looting by the likes of Mr. Hoop, and it allows for proper planning of the reconversion measures.

Socialism? Sure. That’s what makes my proposal sadly unrealistic. Do you have a better one?

Trump’s War on Coal II

The collapse of US coal continues.

In January I posted a piece on coal under Trump, concluding

My prediction is that the pace of closures, and the loss of mining jobs, will roughly triple.

How’s it going? The coal plant closures continue, but it’s far too early to test my prediction. I do however have some new evidence on my side.

I’m not talking about the long-awaited announcement by Trump’s EPA of its replacement for Obama’s Clean Power Plan regulation in the form of the Affordable Clean Energy rule (ACE). The CPP was moribund once SCOTUS loyally suspended it, on the laughable pretext that the Trump Administration would shortly produce a workable alternative form of regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. ACE will be immediately caught up in litigation so it won’t have any effect either: it’s no longer regulations killing coal but economics. For instance, Republican Florida and Texas are both in the middle of a solar boom.

ACE is a stunt to retain the fraying support of Rust Belt voters along the lines of “At least we tried, but we had no answer to AOC’s superhero powers and superior Chinese and Danish technology, backed by the machinations of the Deep State”. Less an ace than a desperate lob from behind the baseline, inviting an easy smash. Fake news.

No, it’s something else.

Continue reading “Trump’s War on Coal II”

Feline asthma

Cat asthma as a political argument to Republican pet owners.

This is about public policy, promise.

My elderly cat Hobbes now has a respiratory problem, as I do. It’s probably feline asthma. Cats get asthma like humans, while dogs don’t. One cause, say vets, is air pollution.

Credit: MeowValet on YouTube

The literature seems stronger on indoor air pollution than outdoor. Second-hand tobacco smoke is a culprit, as are wood fires and incense. I found a serious controlled Taiwanese study on indoor pollution making the link. The effect of outdoor pollution has been less studied for animals. One Mexican study creepily found similar lesions in the brains of big-city dogs to those found in humans with Alzheimer’s.

It seems safer just to rely on the parallelism in the symptoms and mechanisms of cat and human asthma, and the massive literature connecting the human form to air pollution, to conclude that all air pollution is bad for cats too. The effect is reinforced by the height difference: cats and dogs breathe in air at car exhaust level.

This hypothesis suggests a political strategy. In the USA, there are said to be 49.2 million households with a cat. There are 50.4 million with children under 18. That’s 39% each. I couldn’t find a combined breakdown, but let’s assume that the two are independent. That would give 30 million childless households with a cat. The real total will be different, but it’s still a very large number.

This demographic skews old, white and therefore Republican. It cares for its cats. It strikes me as a good argument to make to this group in favour of the energy transition and the GND that the policy will protect the health of their pets.

Some will say: this is ridiculous. Are there really a non-trivial number of voters who will be swayed by the health of cats but not the health of children? If there are, surely they are either “low-information voters” – idiots – or moral imbeciles, and lost causes in either case?

My answers are (a) quite likely and (b) no.

Let me make the case for the defence. The questions are linked by the broader issue of moral myopia.

Continue reading “Feline asthma”

Meet the Siemens SP260D

Electric motors are taking over from ICEs, for everything.

To make a change from the ongoing TV fantasy drama The Fall of the American Empire, aka The Game of the Throneless, let me introduce you to the Siemens SP260D.

This is an electrical aircraft engine. More details here.

This is only the second of Siemens’ efforts in the line, though they have been making electric motors since the 1890s. (AEG beat them to it, in 1889.) The striking datum is the power-to-weight ratio: 260 kW (footnote) from 50 kg, making 5.2 kW/kg. What should we compare this to?

A table of power-to-weight ratios for a sample of engines on the market today.

References: Siemens, Magnix, Lycoming, Tesla, Honda, Mercedes-AMG)

Continue reading “Meet the Siemens SP260D”

The cost of the GND, or what’s the price of gopher wood?

“Make thee an ark of gopher wood”, Yahweh told Noah (Genesis 6:14). Gopher is just a transliteration of the otherwise unknown nonce word גפר . Nobody knows what this means; suggestions range from cypress to bulrushes. It isn’t even necessarily a kind of tree: could be “timber” or “any old wood”. The story claims that whatever he used, Noah got the job done. This makes the Ark a good analogy to the Green New Deal. Like the over-specified dimensions of the Ark, parts of the GND are specific, others studiously vague.

Probably not this sort of gopher

The GND in the United States (it’s not likely to work as a meme elsewhere) is a manifesto not a plan. Its promoters have not yet provided one; rational politics by AOC, as she wants to prod establishment Democrats on the committees into action, not engage in a suicidal death ride against them. The lack has created an inviting target for adversaries. However, the conservatives are missing the point about the GND by raising a scare about big numbers. The big numbers are a selling point. Think big! Go for it! Rosie the Riveter can do it! In this, AOC is authentically Rooseveltian.

A conservative think tank (American Action Forum, Holtz-Eakin et al) has charged in anyway and come up with a ridiculous “estimate” of the cost of the GND: $93 trillion. $36 trn of this is the “cost” of Medicare for All, conveniently forgetting the avoided health insurance. (The net cost if any depends on how much it is politically feasible to squeeze medical providers. Net zero cost is technically feasible, based on the universal experience of other OECD countries.) For the jobs guarantee, they put a useless range of “$6.8 trillion to $44.6 trillion”. The only function of this is to create the scary $93 trn total. I have nothing to offer on these areas. What I do know a little about is the energy side, where the GND is groundbreaking.

Continue reading “The cost of the GND, or what’s the price of gopher wood?”

Donald Trump’s War on Coal

Trump will oversee a much steeper fall in coal than Obama did.


“They want to be miners, but their jobs have been taken away. And we’re going to bring them back, folks.” – candidate Donald Trump on August 10, 2016, with similar statements on many other occasions.

In contrast, the Trump Administration action on this promise has been negligible. One regulation on water pollution from mines was reversed (idem). A proposal to subsidise coal on grounds of “grid resilience” was shot down in flames by a unanimous FERC, the majority of whose members are Trump appointees.

Derelict coal mine in Hashima, Japan

There’s been talk of a new plan using emergency powers and an entirely different and equally specious claim of national security, but the Deep State (i.e. Trump officials who still have two working neurones) have sidelined it.
Trump has appointed a key author of Plan A, Bernard McNamee, to FERC – but there is already a serious legal challenge to force him to recuse himself from taking part in decisions on his own proposals.

Meanwhile, the industry has continued to operate under Obama’s rules. Production actually increased a little in 2017, but this was entirely due to a temporary spike in Chinese imports. It fell slightly in 2018, tracking the slow decline in domestic demand. Jobs are holding up pretty well. At first sight, Trump can plausibly claim at least to have stopped the rot.

He has not. The first bad sign is an acceleration in closures of coal generating plants, an equal record 15 GW in 2018. Chart from IEEFA:

It doesn’t look too bad for the years ahead, does it? But in fact the firmly announced closures are the tip of a Titanic iceberg. There is much, much worse to come.

Continue reading “Donald Trump’s War on Coal”

Ammonia: a New Year’s paean

Synthetic ammonia from catalysed hydrogen: yes ,iy’s important

WTF? Has Wimberley finally taken leave of his diminishing senses? Why laud a commonplace and unpleasantly acrid standard chemical, used to make fertilizer and explosives, and still popular as a cleaning agent with traditionalist housewives in Spain and Brazil? (The nasty smell tells germs you mean business.)

Hear me out, kind readers. Ammonia is about to take its place as a worthy piece of the complex jigsaw puzzle of the energy transition.

This will be down to its additional potential use as a carbon-free fuel. Burn ammonia, in an engine or fuel cell, and you ideally get:

4.NH3 (ammonia) + 3.O2 (oxygen) → 2.N2 (nitrogen) + 6.H2O (water)

In an engine, in practice you also get some nasty nitrous oxides, NOX: controllable by clever engine management, scrubbing the exhaust with more ammonia, or reforming to hydrogen just before burning.

Ammonia is not a greenhouse gas, and nor are its main combustion products. So it’s a candidate for a storable renewable fuel to replace oil-based liquid fuels and natural gas. The rivals are plant-based liquid biofuels (diesel, ethanol, kerosene), biogas from digesters fed with biomass, and catalytic hydrogen.

In this competition it has some attractive technical characteristics. Continue reading “Ammonia: a New Year’s paean”

Climate alarmism?

The warnings of the National Climate Assessment are somewhat overblown. Still you should worry.

The Trump Administration scored an own goal by its Cunning Plan to release the mandated National Climate Assessment on the Friday after US Thanksgiving, counting on comatose satiety to distract public attention. In fact, it was such a quiet news day, without outrageous Trump tweets, that the report’s dire warnings got unusual coverage.

The usual shills, rallied by the Leader himself, promptly decried the report as the usual alarmism.

For once, I have to say that the shills have half, or perhaps a quarter, of a point. The NCA makes the situation worse than it really is (which is bad enough). Here’s my take.

The issue lies in the use of a piece of professional jargon, the RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways). These were defined ten years ago in 2008-2009 by the climate science community to provide benchmarks for comparing different climate models, using a short list of different assumptions about future emissions. RCP 8.5 is the highest emission track, leading to at least 4 degrees C of warming by end century. The best, RCP 2.6, represents early peaking of emissions and the prospect of climate stabilisation.

It matters a great deal which we are on. The NCA says it’s RCP 8.5. Overview (pdf page 10), my emphasis:

The higher scenario (RCP 8.5) represents a future where annual greenhouse gas emissions increase significantly throughout the 21st century before leveling off by 2100, whereas the other RCPs represent more rapid and substantial mitigation by mid-century, with greater reductions thereafter. Current trends in annual greenhouse gas emissions, globally, are consistent with RCP 8.5.

But wait, the full Chapter 2 on climate science, box 2.4, is more nuanced (references omitted):

Which scenario is more likely? The observed acceleration in carbon emissions over the past 15–20 years has been consistent with the higher future scenarios (such as RCP 8.5) considered in this assessment. Since 2014, however, the growth in emission rates of carbon dioxide has begun to slow as economic growth has become less carbon-intensive with the trend in 2016 estimated at near zero. Preliminary data for 2017, however, indicate growth in carbon emissions once again. These latest results highlight how separating systemic change due to decarbonization from short-term variability that is often affected by economic changes remains difficult.

Well, which is it? Continue reading “Climate alarmism?”

The Queen of Hearts

A lament on Brazil’s election of Bolsonaro, with tips on what to do.

Brazil has just elected a charismatic far-right loon, Jair Messias (sic) Bolsonaro, as its next President. Political junkies can study his campaign website and programme (pdf download), but these documents are more than usually irrelevant. His extraordinary rise from the backbenches in Brasilia has not been based on policy – zero-based budgeting, anybody? – but on tricolour smoke and mirrors, spread by WhatsApp.

A press summary of the programme indicates that there is very little of substance in it. Economy: austerity, privatizations. Taxes: cut (though most Brazilians will find any cuts are taken back by the ideological shift to a capitalized pension scheme). Corruption: lock ‘em up (PT politicians that is). Crime: a free hand to the police to shoot suspects; easier access to guns (I am not making this up). Environment: open up the Amazon to agribusiness. Foreign policy: follow Trump. Education: back to basics, national anthem. Rights of indigenous peoples, LGBTQ, lefties: what rights? Inequality, poverty: fear for the worst.

Bolsonaro has had two careers, both in the public sector. The first was in the army, which he entered aged 16 as an officer cadet. He left in 1988 (after 17 years) as a captain – an ignominious exit rank for a career officer. Brazil was a military dictatorship until 1985. For the first part of his career he was regularly being passed over for promotion by the men responsible for running this dictatorship: presumably not on grounds of ideological deviation. His superiors’ assessments of his capabilities did not change under democracy. He entered politics and sat for 30 years as a isolated backbencher, only known for incendiary remarks in favour of torture and dictatorship. He does not appear to have any serious interest in public policy; the core programme could have been assembled over a weekend in any bar frequented by right-wing blowhards.

The character in fiction that Bolsonaro best matches is neither Brecht’s Arturo Ui  nor Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel but Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts:

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’

Now he is leader of a country of 210 million. How come? Continue reading “The Queen of Hearts”

Another liar

Another liar surfaces, a nominee for FERC

President Trump has nominated a fossil fuel advocate, Bernard McNamee, for a vacancy on FERC. McNamee is a professional energy lawyer, and has worked for a big utility and a Koch-funded think tank. He is currently executive director of the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy.

He wrote an op-ed for The Hill on Earth Day, a ridiculous paean to fossil fuels. It includes this sentence (my italics):

Some suggest that we can replace fossil fuels with renewable resources to meet our needs, but they never explain how.

This is a lie. McNamee is not a fool and the carelessness explanation does not wash for the head of the DoE’s policy shop. Continue reading “Another liar”