U.S. coal alliance is only a ‘conversation’ — DOE official

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 18, 2018

The Energy Department’s fossil fuels chief said a controversial effort by the United States to establish a global alliance to promote coal and natural gas is “not yet ready for prime time.”

DOE Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg said the so-called Clean and Advanced Fossil Fuel Alliance is still at a preliminary stage. He was speaking at a meeting of coal industry representatives and advocates.

“There’s been some discussion about it, some conversation, primarily led at the White House, but it is a proposal,” Winberg said during a panel hosted by the World Coal Association. “So it’s not ready yet for prime time.”

The idea of an international consortium to advance cleaner coal and natural gas technologies around the world was first floated at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany, last November by then-White House energy adviser George David Banks.

Banks, who credits Energy Secretary Rick Perry with the idea, is still involved in shaping the proposal despite his departure from the Trump administration earlier this year. E&E News first reported on Tuesday that the original idea of a multilateral collaboration had expanded, and the administration is now weighing the creation of a central institution to promote fossil fuels (Climatewire, May 15).

Banks’ proposal was originally offered as a counterweight to a coalition of countries pledging to abandon coal-fired power, led by the United Kingdom and Canada. It’s unclear who would participate in the fossil fuel alliance, but Winberg said yesterday that there would be no shortage of interest.

“I think any country that has a stake in coal probably would be a partner,” he said, in response to a question by E&E News.

Winberg, a former executive for Consol Energy, was more effusive about Perry’s role as an ambassador for the U.S. energy sector.

“I’ve watched him do it. There’s no one better that I’ve ever seen go out and communicate the value of U.S. technology and U.S. fuels,” he said.

Perry addressed the gathering in the morning. He touted DOE’s success in developing technologies that can reduce emissions, including carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology.

“We’ve chosen to innovate, not regulate, our way out of this fuels emissions problem,” Perry said.

The Trump administration proposed budget cuts for DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy in fiscal 2018 and 2019. Congress restored that funding.

Perry said that during last year’s meeting of energy ministers from Group of Seven nations in Rome, ministers expressed interest in U.S. fossil fuels during bilateral meetings. His press office did not respond to inquiries about which ones.

Perry will not attend next week’s meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, of the Clean Energy Ministerial, a global convention on low-carbon energy that began at DOE in 2010 and has been attended by a U.S. secretary of Energy ever since. He attended last year’s meeting in Beijing.

DOE spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said Perry would skip it this year because of a conflict in his schedule. Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette will go in his place, and will unveil a new initiative on CCUS.

The United States has faced a record number of coal plant retirements and virtually no new projects in the last few years due to competition from natural gas and, some would say, overregulation. To reverse this trend, DOE formally launched a push last week to facilitate the development of small coal plants that can provide backup for intermittent technologies like renewable energy, as gas plants do.

Asked about the target clientele for these plants, Winberg said he hopes the United States will take advantage of the new technology.

“Part of DOE’s responsibility is to look over the horizon,” he said, imagining a future when gas might not be quite so cheap and when baseload power from aging coal and nuclear plants might need to be replaced. “We think these kinds of small modular plants will fit very nicely into the evolving grid here in the United States.”

He said small, modular coal plants might also be in demand in poor countries where adequate transmission was never built, and where gas prices are higher than they are in the United States.

Countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia are building coal plants as Western nations retire theirs. But most of the units that are being built use relatively old technology obtained at bargain prices, often from China.

Newer technologies like the ones Winberg envisions could bring some carbon benefits over less efficient models, but the Paris-based International Energy Agency has found that the world can’t afford to run coal plants past 2030 unless they also capture most of their carbon emissions. Unregulated coal by that time would cause the world to overshoot its Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming to a level below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

While panel members expressed support for development of carbon capture technology, Winberg and others sidestepped questions about whether CCUS should be considered essential to any new coal builds.

“High-efficiency, low-emissions technology goes a long way toward addressing economic and environmental issues,” said Glenn Kellow, president and CEO of Peabody Energy Inc., on the same panel. “Certainly, in the next generation, we need to work to develop carbon capture and sequestration.”

Peabody worked to promote legislation to expand a tax credit for carbon capture and storage, which became law in February and which industry advocates say may encourage more countries to consider CCUS as oil prices rise and enhanced oil recovery becomes more profitable.