Coal’s Crystal Ball: Bright, Muddled, or Bleak?

Amy Harder

In a world committed to combating climate change, what role, if any, can coal play?

President Obama is going after coal both at home through tougher Environmental Protection Agency rules and abroad by his declaration last month that the U.S. government would stop financing coal-fired power plants overseas.

Coal is cheap, dirty, and abundant. In a nutshell, those three characteristics explain how coal is also the biggest culprit of rising greenhouse-gas emissions, including chiefly carbon dioxide, which the scientific consensus agrees causes global warming. According to the EPA, coal emits 2,249 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, compared to natural gas (1,135 pounds) and oil (1,672 pounds).

The Obama administration recently announced $8 billion in loan-guarantee authority to advance so-called “clean coal” projects that capture carbon and store it underground. This technology is both very expensive and only available on a demonstration level in a handful of places throughout the world. It is a steep climb—some would say impossible—to develop the technology so it can be cost-effective enough to be deployed on a massive scale. If this happens, it would enable coal to survive in a carbon-constrained world and combat climate change simultaneously.

What role do you see foresee coal fulfilling in 20 or 50 years? What more can the administration do to ensure coal has a future both in the United States and throughout the world? What other technologies can help burn coal more cleanly? What role do other high carbon-emitting countries, like China and India, play?