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Is the decline of coal a national security problem?

Public Policy

As the Trump administration seeks to resuscitate the moribund American coal industry, it has decided to invoke “national security” as the justification for a plan to subsidize coal-fired power plants.

Three things are notable about the administration’s proposal. First, invoking “national security” has become a favored tool for getting around existing regulations, precedents and the Constitution. It’s also handy for labeling one’s opponents as unpatriotic in order to avoid a genuine discussion of the true purpose of a proposed action. Second, the coal industry used to be the one attacking renewable energy sources as too expensive to stand on their own without subsidies. As the cost of renewable energy has continued to plummet, the tables are now turning.

Third, the move has united an unlikely coalition in opposition that includes the oil and gas industry, anti-nuclear activists (since nuclear power plants are included in the subsidy plan), environmentalists and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which is dominated by Trump appointees. It takes amazingly bad policy to get an alliance like this together.

In asking whether the U.S. energy supply has become a national security problem, the administration takes on thorny definitional issues. What does the seemingly endlessly elastic term “national security” mean? The term has been used to justify U.S. military intervention in places ranging in size from Grenada to Iraq. It has been used as a justification for wholesale spying on every American with an internet connection or a cellphone. It has essentially become a Swiss Army knife for anything the government wants to do that isn’t quite legal or constitutional or that is at the very least contrary to obvious logic and precedents.

The administration’s plan is to invoke a wartime measure called the Defense Production Act to impose its will on the energy markets. The act was designed to harness necessary industrial production during wartime.

Subsidizing coal- and nuclear-generated electricity will hardly enhance U.S. security. Our central energy vulnerability is continuing substantial oil imports that make the country subject to political and military disruptions far away. And the overall threat to the United States and the world is dependence on all forms of the finite energy supply represented by fossil fuels which still supply 80 percent of society’s energy.

The fact remains that energy from fossil fuels will peak someday and then begin to decline. We are not ready for that day. The Trump coal plan rather than increasing our national security will actually diminish it as it moves money away from other energy sources—especially from renewable energy, which offers a genuine avenue for addressing the twin crises of climate change and fossil fuel depletion.


Resource Insights by Kurt Cobb

3 Comments on "Is the decline of coal a national security problem?"

  1. Makati1 on Sun, 1st Jul 2018 8:06 pm 

    “The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been about 200 years. These nations always progressed through this sequence:
    From Bondage to Moral Certitude;
    from Moral Certitude to Great Courage;
    from Great Courage to Liberty;
    from Liberty to Abundance;
    from Abundance to Selfishness;
    from Selfishness to Complacency;
    from Complacency to Apathy;
    from Apathy to Dependency;
    from Dependency to Bondage.”

    The Us is currently on the last step. Slip slidin’…

  2. The World on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 5:20 am 

    I hope America, and Americans, suffer greatly. Nothing brings a bigger smile to my face than to read that Americans are killing each other and suffering more and more each day. Trump is an idiot who will bring America down. I hope he gets reelected.
    Now, please America- carry on with your business of destroying yourselves, and each other, with drugs and guns.

  3. Antius on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 9:40 am 

    It could be a national security concern. Personally, I think Trump has the right idea. But another priority should be to remove institutional barriers impeding the construction of new nuclear power plants.

    The US has about 10trillion cubic metres of proven natural gas reserves (340trillion cubic feet) and by year end will be producing something like 80billion cu ft per day. At that rate, R/P ratio is about 11.6 years. That is not the sort of resource base that any nation should be pinning its long-term future on.

    With additional exploration, reserves will certainly increase. But by how much and how much longer will the fuel be available as an electricity fuel at low prices? Since fuel cost accounts for something like 80% of the cost of gas-generated power, these are hardly trivial issues. There is a huge bubble of over-supply at present, thanks to shale oil drilling, which is pushing down prices. Much the same thing happened in the UK North Sea in the 1990s. Now, we are high and dry, having to import LNG to fuel the huge number of CCGT plants built between the 90s and early 2000s.

    The bone-heads in the green movement aren’t the most technically informed bunch of people. They are all about agenda politics and will never do a single good thing for anyone.

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