Trump’s War on Coal IV

In the second of this series of posts, I reported on data from the SEIA and consultants WoodMac that cast doubt on FERC’s forecasts of “highly probable” new solar installation in the USA. I went so far as to characterize these as “politicised rubbish”.

At the time I did not have comparable data for wind. Now I do. In a press release, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports:

Of the total wind pipeline, 17,213 MW were under construction across 21 states at the end of first quarter. [….] Project developers also reported 21,949 MW of wind capacity in the advanced development stage, which also reached a record level. Projects in advanced development have not yet begun construction but are likely to come online in the near term because they have either signed a long-term contract, placed turbine orders, or are proceeding under utility ownership.

My italics.

The AWEA definition corresponds very closely to the SEIA/WoodMac criterion for solar and to any common-sense interpretation of the term “highly probable”. So FERC have got this badly wrong too.

Putting the data together for your convenience, I get this:

The implied coal retirements in the last line – implied by the AWEA and SEIA/WoodMac data – are based on the assumptions of static demand for electricity, one-for-one substitution of renewables for coal, and no change in the latter’s break-even capacity factor (CF). The continuous-equivalent number for the announced retirements is just reached by applying the fleet average and is probably inaccurate, but it plays no part in the rest of the calculation. Note that old coal plants are inflexible, unlike gas, and don’t contribute much to the needed firming backup for cheap intermittent renewables.

The table also assumes that all the utility projects listed by SEIA/WoodMac and the AWEA will be completed in the three-year horizon used by FERC. This is very likely, though recently solar developers have started signing PPAs with delivery as late as 2023. The CFs for wind and solar are conservative, as technical advances are still raising them.

The estimate therefore has a fair margin of error. But it does strongly suggest that coal retirements of well over twice those already notified to FERC are already baked into the cake, with more on the way.

* * * * * *

Politically, the key factor is how many more coal jobs are lost in the next 15 months, before the 2020 elections. Here the picture is much less clear, but qualitatively similar.

It’s a fairly safe assumption that all the wind and solar farms currently under construction will be working by the election and cutting demand for coal. Since solar is very quick to build once ground is broken, this may imply a large underestimate. Using the same simple methods as in my table, that translates to 11.5 GW of redundant coal generation. The actual coal plant closures may be delayed or anticipated; the impact on mining jobs will be immediate.

The number is in the same ballpark as recent experience. 15 GW of American coal plants closed in 2018, displaced by gas as much as renewables. ( I don’t attempt to take account of gas here, but it’s more bad news for coal.) The acceleration I predicted, and still do, looks as if it will come after the election. However, the now certain job losses, and the equally certain prospect of many more to come, will already be on a sufficient scale to show up Trump’s promises in 2016 to American coal-miners as a cynical fraud.

It looks as if Appalachians generally are slowly getting the message. Trump’s approval ratings in selected states, Morning Consult, for now and at the start of his term:

Unpublished Op-Ed

Mark Kleiman and I wrote this in February 2017, but never had it published. I thought that it might be worth posting at this time.

Some Words of Advice for Federal Employees

Receiving directives inconsistent with good government – if not worse – creates one of the most difficult situations a civil servant can face. As former Justice Department staffers, we have some advice to offer Federal employees when such situations arise, as they seem likely to do often under the current regime.

1.       When told to implement a policy that is counter to statute, regulation, or the stated and authorized goals of the agency, take good notes; such directives rarely come in writing. Then go back to your office and write down your understanding of the recommended policy, making sure you have correctly described what you were told. Then send that account as a memo to your superior.

2.       Whether or not you receive a reply, follow up with a detailed list of issues and concerns, both pro and con, involved with proposed policy or action. Describe them in full context and cite the relevant legislation, executive orders, and constitutional issues. Send that, too, up the chain of command.

3.       You may also be at the receiving end of threats or other problematic situations that are meant to intimidate you. Write a memo to yourself and share it with a trusted friend as soon as possible, to establish a time line.

4.       Do not use your office phone or computer (or cell phone while in the office) for personal reasons, least of all to complain about these situations, as this may open you up to attack. If your agency expects you to be available for phone calls and text messages around the clock, get a cell phone that you use only for official business. You might want to use a text messaging app that encrypts the message, and ask your recipients to do the same.

5. Maintain a contemporaneous, written log on a ruled ledger with a sewn binding, so removal of any page will show. Enter every meeting, call, and significant email on successive lines in ink, leaving no spaces. Fill in any space on the right with a slash, so nothing can be added. Note the date, time, attendees, subject, and conclusions. Absent minutes, no one else will remember what happened a day later, so your record will become dispositive. This approach, laborious though it is, can provide valuable protection for anyone from a GS-1 to a cabinet officer.

6. If you decide to talk to a reporter, get the ground rules clear first. “On background” means you can’t be identified, but your agency can; “deep background” means that even your agency isn’t mentioned.  Any communication to the press about official business not previously cleared by your agency’s public information office will probably put you out of bounds; consider whether you’re willing to take the consequences. If you’re later asked about whether you were the source of a story, either tell the truth (and be prepared to find a new job) or refuse to answer.

There are already reports that White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has taken steps to erase the paper trail behind various Executive Orders. All the more reason for career civil servants and the political appointees more loyal to the country than to the ruling cabal to make as much of a record as possible.

Michael Maltz is Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice and of Information & Decision Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a research analyst with the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice during the Nixon administration and had to deal with some questionable directives.

Mark Kleiman was Professor of Public Policy at the New York University Marron Institute of Urban Management. He served as Director of Policy and Management Analysis for the Criminal Division in the Carter and Reagan Administrations, never receiving an improper order.

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”

The sleep of reason brings nightmares

Nothing combines Trump’s ignorance, cruelty, fecklessness and desperation like [what I suppose is] Stephen Miller’s idea of sending refugees into sanctuary cities.  It’s nature imitating art, Brers Fox and Bear throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch.

The way this scheme is supposed to work is that we (I live in one of those places) will be terrified at the prospect and crime will soar when it happens, so we will vote against all our Democratic officials and, I guess, form vigilante gangs and go after the refugees violently. Boy, that’ll show those luftmensch liberals and the refugees both, right?

But every assumption behind this is completely wrong. These are people who don’t want to be raped and killed, and have the courage to trek two thousand miles to protect their kids, and who trust US decency and law, and being immigrants will have lower crime rates than the native population. The idea that they are going to scare the pants off us is completely and obviously nuts. Sanctuary cities declared themselves such having lots of experience with immigrants; we know exactly what to expect, and it’s OK with us.

Aside from its viciousness and illegality, it’s hard to think of a Trump initiative that is so completely disconnected from facts and reality; not just slightly off, but totally mad.  The White House continues to plumb new depths of sick and stupid; are there any more wheels that can come off this thing?

Why you can skip the SOTU

The word considerable does not mean what most people think it does. It means “needing or deserving of consideration” , not “big”  or “a lot” .  It means what everything Donald Trump says is not, and tonight’s speech (and the post-speech tweets and flailing about by flacks and shills that will follow) will be more proof: Trump’s discourse is not considerable and should just be ignored as such. 

One significance of the Jewish ceremony of Bar Mitzvah is that the principal is now responsible for what he says: when an adult says he will do something, the odds that he will should go up, and in general people can depend on that and make corresponding commitments. What Trump says he will do has no such significance: his statements of intent are vacuous and ephemeral, as Mitch McConnell and the dozens people he has stiffed in business can attest.

When grownups assert facts about the world, the assertion has some bearing on what you should believe, though of course some are better informed than others or smarter.  When Trump says practically anything, his relentless, terrier-like, purposeful ignorance means it has no informative value whatever, whether he’s noodling about climate, Iran, the border, or trade data.

A third kind of discourse enlightens us about the speaker’s values: “I’m a Christian” is shorthand for a bunch of actions in the world one can expect the speaker to try to perform or not.  Trump’s value statements are as vacuous, and as labile—whether odious or decent–as his fact discourse. 

It’s not just a matter of mendacity, though his endless, insouciant lying about big things and small have a lot to do with this. He doesn’t misrepresent his values; he just doesn’t have any (except his own ego). If there were money to made from it, and he had permission from Laura Ingraham and Putin, he would as readily get on a climate alarm jag as he does about immigrants.

All of which has been a paralyzing problem for all of us and especially for the press.  Deference to his office, and long journalistic tradition, seems to require that when the president says “A is B”, the fact that he said it requires reporting, perhaps with a quote from another source who says “no, it’s not!” But when this president says absolutely anything, the event is not like any other president, or any other important public official saying something.  It has no bearing on anyone’s belief, on what he will do in the future, or on our views of him: it’s not considerable. It’s like a horserace prediction based on a dice roll. We’ve had two years of our press trying to treat Trump’s discourse as the utterances of a responsible, more-or-less-informed, responsible adult: it’s time to stop. The word lie is, thankfully, starting to be used to characterize his mendacities, but why tell us about something that will be inoperative or a passing fancy by the next news cycle?  We need a completely new convention, recognizing that the presidential utterance process has been replaced with an inconsequential–not considerable—model, and treating it like the “speech” of a parrot or random artificial speech generator.

Not considerable: how to listen to tonight’s speech, or why you can just ignore it.

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”

Dayspring Mishandled?

A conspiracy theory on the Prague meeting.

(Explanation for the obscure title at the end)

I should not be telling you this, but I think readers have a right to know before the weekend.

The Steele dossier on Trump’s numerous shady ties to Russia includes the notorious alleged visit by Cohen to Prague in August 2016.

1. Speaking to a compatriot and friend on 19 October 2016, a Kremlin insider provided further details of reported clandestine meeting/s between Republican presidential candidate, Donald TRUMP’S lawyer Michael COHEN and Kremlin representatives in August 2016. Although the communication between them had to be cryptic for security reasons, the Kremlin insider clearly indicated to his/her friend that the reported contact/s took place in Prague, Czech Republic.

2. Continuing on this theme, the Kremlin insider highlighted the importance of the Russian parastatal organisation, Rossotrudnichestvo, in this contact between TRUMP campaign representative/s and Kremlin officials. Rossotrudnichestvo was being used as cover for this relationship and its office in Prague may well have been used to host the COHEN / Russian Presidential Administration (PA) meeting/s. It was considered a “plausibly deniable” vehicle for this, whilst remaining entirely under Kremlin control.

3. The Kremlin insider went on to identify leading pro-PUTIN Duma figure, Konstantin KOSACHEV (Head of the Foreign Relations Committee) as an important figure in the TRUMP campaign-Kremlin liaison operation. KOSACHEV, also “plausibly deniable” being part of the Russian legislature rather than executive, had facilitated the contact in Prague and by implication, may have attended the meeting/s with COHEN there in August.

Cohen – even after his plea deal – continues to maintain he has never been to Prague and was in Rome or maybe Capri at the time. However, McClatchy reporters have found circumstantial evidence (cellphone location records) that he was there after all. What will the Mueller report reveal? If the Steele dossier’s allegation is confirmed, it could be the smoking gun that ends the Trump presidency.

My own high-level source (whose identity I am sworn not to reveal) makes the following observation, couched as a speculation. Suppose you are the head of the Czech security service BIS, Michal Koudelka. He will see Putin’s machinations to weaken or destroy the NATO alliance and reestablish Russian hegemony over the former Soviet empire as a critical threat to the security of his country. Such threats justify extreme measures. The BIS will have put a major effort into checking the Steele claims of collusion with Donald Trump, the Trump organization, or the Trump campaign. They know what really happened in Prague.

Let’s suppose that these efforts have turned up a blank on the visit: Cohen did not meet Kremlin representatives in Prague, though the conspiracy was real. A professional counterespionage officer would inevitably think about an operation to “frame the guilty”. Continue reading “Dayspring Mishandled?”

Staffing for success

Every management book says choosing the right lieutenants and partners is critical to success for any enterprise: always surround yourself with the best people. Even Donald Trump at least paid lip service to the idea when he promised to do that coming into office (that was before the best, the pretty good, the OK-I-guess, and strata right down to unqualified figured out it was time to run away from him, so he had to hire out of dumpsters). So his judgment of Michael Cohen as “weak” and “not very smart” seemed odd given their two-decade relationship…was that a new insight?

Readers will surely be as puzzled as I was, but Alexandra Petri brilliantly resolves this mystery today.

Historians of our current malaise will have to credit Trump, against all his evils, for inspiring Petri to new personal bests.

Read it here before it happens (Khashoggi)

Mohammed Bin Salman: We are shocked—shocked! that a rogue band of operatives misunderstood my idle reflection (“will no one rid me of this turbulent journalist?”) and committed this terrible crime.  We are not surprised that the group included Qataris and Persians.  All will be beheaded publicly tomorrow afternoon at 3 and their bodies put through a brush chipper and into my shark pond.

[Twelve schlimazel expat laborers are rounded up off the street and executed]

Trump: As I expected, the vengeful Democrat fake news press mob—the greatest, most mendacious, most treasonous mob any president has ever faced–was wrong again, and if some patriots should exercise my rally advice on them it’s really their own fault.  I talked to my good friend Mohammed Bin Salman this morning; he bought three condos right there on the phone, and he firmly denies he had anything to do with this unfortunate event, just like Putin, Brett, and, um me, and that should be enough once and for all.

I might add that the people who expect some of my strongest supporters (and funders) to give up $10 billion in arms business, while there are still working hospitals in Yemen patching up Houthi children to grow up into radical Islamic terrorists,  over one foreign brown fake news scribbler for the failing Washington Post, are the kind of people who don’t want America to be great, and that’s why we need to save the Republican congress next month.