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Industrialized nations that developed with coal hope to convince poor countries not to do the same

While wealthier countries have the luxury of pursuing a $275 trillion dollar transition away from fossil fuels, the efforts to get poorer countries to leapfrog over coal are running up against the fact that it is cheap and abundant.

Published: December 5, 2023 11:00pm

The explosion of coal use sparked the Industrial Revolution, which coincided with an exponential increase in wealth.

Now, wealthy countries whose development was fueled by coal are hoping to convince poorer countries not to use it for their own development.

“You get a good bang for the buck with coal, and it provides solid, reliable energy. The affordability of coal and the availability makes it very attractive for the developing world,” Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association told Just The News.

While wealthier countries have the luxury of pursuing a $275 trillion transition away from fossil fuels, the efforts to get poorer countries to leapfrog over coal is running up against the fact that it is cheap and abundant. “You can find coal most everywhere, and it’s relatively cheap to produce,” Deti said.

South Africa and Indonesia are among the countries that signed onto the Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETP). The U.S. France, U.K. and Germany provided $8.5 billion in loans, investments and grants beginning in 2021, according to The Wall Street Journal, and that’s ballooned to a $28.5 billion program today.

Despite the financial support, the program is failing. Eskom, the state-owned power company of South Africa, which gets more than 80% of its electricity and 20% of its liquid fuel from coal, delayed plans to retire its coal-fired power plants.

Indonesia’s program was thrown into doubt when the government said that JETP didn’t consider coal plants built for metal smelters and other factories that are in remote areas without any other electricity source. Indonesian authorities are planning for more of these plants as the country tries to build up its smelting industry to satisfy nickel and cobalt demand for electric-vehicle batteries.

Both Indonesian and South African officials also complain, according to the Journal, that the JETP program supplies primarily loans, as opposed to grants, which will only saddle them with debt.

While the U.S. and Europe have had a net reduction in coal-fired power capacity, Asian countries, particularly China and India, have had net increases in coal-fired capacity that offsets all the reductions of the West.

At the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28, in Dubai, on Sunday, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said he’s frustrated with the developing world’s hunger for coal, and he is becoming “militant” over the issue. “We will be working to accelerate unabated coal phase-out across the world, building stronger economies and more resilient communities. The first step is to stop making the problem worse: stop building new unabated coal power plants," Kerry said, The Hill reports.

Emily Arthun, executive director of the American Coal Council, told Just The News that Kerry’s statements are “hypocrisy at its best. Look at the United States and other developed countries. Coal got us there. So it's important to be able to allow countries to have that same opportunity that we have,” Arthun said.

Wyoming, which produces 41% of the coal in the U.S., had hoped to tap into markets in the East with the construction of a port terminal in Washington. Officials in the state denied the permits for the project based on anti-coal environmentalist arguments.

Wyoming and Montana officials had sought to sue Washington, arguing the permit denial violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against trade protectionism between states. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2021 denied the request to hear the complaint. The decision was a blow to Wyoming’s coal mines and their economic value to the state. It’s especially frustrating for the industry, the Wyoming Mining Association's Deti said, considering how the coal markets in the East grew in the past few years.

“We still field calls today from those countries on the Pacific Rim  — from Japan, from Korea, from Vietnam — that want to use Wyoming coal, and, unfortunately, this is where we stand today. Due to politics, we just can't get it to them,” he added.

During his speech, Kerry announced that the U.S. would be the Powering Past Coal Alliance, an agreement between nearly 60 nations that promise to accelerate the phasing out of coal-fired power plants.
In 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. produced nearly 20% of its electricity from coal. It was double that in 2008. Much of the decline was almost entirely the result of a switch to natural gas, which now accounts for 40% of the U.S. total electricity production.

Germany pursued one of the world’s most ambitious programs to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, as well as nuclear power. The country banned hydraulic fracturing oil and gas technologies, which led to burst of natural gas supplies in the United States, and the country planned to rely on imports of natural gas from Russia until it weaned itself off of fossil fuels entirely.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine cut off supplies of natural gas to the country, an energy crisis ensued, and Germany had to begin coal mining to supply its power plants.

While the United States has developed domestic sources of natural gas, gas is also used to heat spaces. During extreme cold events, natural gas supplies get diverted from power plants to homes. Multiple national assessments, as well as some state assessments, have found high risk for supply shortages on the grid during periods of high demand.

Arthun said this is why the plan to eliminate coal-fired power plants in the U.S. is going to lead to shortfalls when people need energy the most. “For the United States to be risking the well being of our citizens by closing down coal plants before we have enough dependable baseload power is, frankly, ludicrous,” Arthun said.

Arthun added that coal plant technology has improved so much that the fuel can be burned much cleaner today. “We should be looking to continue to develop our technology,” Arthun said, instead of trying to eliminate coal power altogether.

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