Policy Shift Helps Coal, but Other Forces May Limit Effect

2017-03-28 22:42:02

 

Policy Shift Helps Coal, but Other Forces May Limit Effect

Many fossil fuel executives are celebrating President Trump’s move to dismantle the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. But their cheers are muted, because market forces and state initiatives continue to elevate coal’s rivals, especially natural gas and renewable energy.

In coal’s favor, there is the new promise that federal lands will be open for leasing, ending an Obama-era moratorium. Easing pollution restrictions could delay the closing of some old coal-fired power plants, slowing the switch by some utilities to other sources.

And with the government pendulum swinging from environmental concerns back to job creation and energy independence, share prices of many energy companies, particularly coal producers, soared Tuesday on the news.

For coal executives, however, optimism and expansion plans remain guarded. Regulatory relief could restore 10 percent of their companies’ lost market share at most, they say — nowhere near enough to return coal to its dominant position in power markets and put tens of thousands of coal miners to work.

“At the end of the day, coal will still have to compete with a host of other fuels,” said Rick Curtsinger, a spokesman for Cloud Peak Energy, one of the country’s leading coal producers. “Utilities’ long-term decisions are based on economics and the need for long-term certainty.”

Just as economic realities produced a frenzy of oil and gas drilling during Barack Obama’s two terms as president — notwithstanding his environmental agenda and aggressive policies to combat climate change — economics and technological advances are bound to shape the country’s energy landscape despite Mr. Trump’s very different blueprint.

Nothing has changed that landscape more than cheap natural gas, and improved drilling techniques in shale fields from Pennsylvania to Texas are driving down production costs to the point where gas supplies are growing and prices continue to slump.

“If the Clean Power Plan is reneged upon, I don’t think you will see utilities going back to investing in coal because they have already reduced their infrastructure and they already have commitments geared toward natural gas,” said Tamar Essner, an energy analyst at Nasdaq Advisory Services.

Wind and solar power are also taking market share, as the costs of utility-scale generation have become competitive with those of hydrocarbons in many parts of the country.

To be sure, fossil fuel companies will be helped by the Trump administration’s initiative. The only question is by how much.

Easing some regulations could foster the building of oil and natural gas pipelines across the country. That, in turn, could stimulate more drilling in certain basins, like the Marcellus Shale field in Pennsylvania.

In addition, relaxing restrictions on flaring methane and hydraulic fracturing on federal lands could help some producers increase production. But shale oil and gas production in the United States is mostly done on private lands. Oil prices have fallen by half over the last three years, limiting the demand to drill on more federal land, at least for the moment.

“It will depend on price,” said Mark Boling, the executive vice president of Southwestern Energy, a major natural gas and oil producer. “It’s the market that drives.”

Mr. Boling said the administration’s action would have no impact on his company’s immediate plans. And he expects the industry to continue efforts to capture more leaking methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, because of innovations in leak detection and repair equipment.

“We still plan to drive methane emissions down because we think it’s part of our core business to be as efficient as possible in removing natural gas from the ground and getting it to our customers,” he said. “We are definitely going to do that.”

Whatever the federal policy, the outlook for renewable energy looks particularly bright. By the end of last year, 29 states had adopted rules to replace a substantial share of fossil fuel electricity production with cleaner power. California is far ahead of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan in environmental stewardship, and promises to resist the federal government’s new agenda.

In addition, federal tax credits for wind and solar enacted during the Obama administration will continue for at least several more years, and they have the support of Republican members of Congress from states producing wind power, like Texas and Iowa.

A recent report from Morningstar, which provides investment research, concluded that state mandates would continue to push the growth of renewables, and that efficiency upgrades in technology to generate natural gas would make it even harder for aging coal plants to compete.

The analysis found that existing state mandates would result in enough renewable energy to meet nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity use within eight years, with more than half of that growth coming by 2020 in large states like Colorado, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“We have millions of customers and investors who want clean energy,” said Ignacio S. Galán, chief executive of Iberdrola, the Spanish company that operates the second-biggest wind-power portfolio in the United States after NextEra Energy.

In an interview this month, he said that the contention by Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency’s new administrator, that carbon dioxide may not be a prime cause of climate change was “just like a joke” and added that his company would continue to expand its wind and solar investments, whatever the fate of the Clean Power Plan.

The company plans to increase its total United States renewable energy capacity by roughly a third by 2020. In recent weeks, Avangrid Renewables, an Iberdrola subsidiary, pledged roughly $9 million to lease 122,405 acres off Kitty Hawk, N.C., for wind development, a bet on an offshore industry that is just beginning to take off.

Even some utilities that did not support the Clean Power Plan say they will continue to make long-term investments to meet their customers’ demands, which in many states include a greener energy mix.

“We think the rule went beyond E.P.A.’s statutory authority and infringed on the rights of the states to manage the generating fleet,” said Leo Denault, chief executive of Entergy, which has been working to lower its carbon emissions since the early 2000s. “That said, the potential of it rolling back does not change our commitment to being environmentally responsible.”

Nicholas K. Akins, chief executive of American Electric Power, said that although federal policies under Mr. Trump could help extend the life of some aging coal plants, they would still have to compete against natural gas and renewables when it came time to replace them.

“Our plans remain the same,” he said. “We’re going to invest over the next three years $1.5 billion in renewables, $9 billion in transmission to optimize the grid. This industry is moving in a direction that really moves toward a clean energy economy. That’s what our customers expect, that’s what our shareholders expect.”

But Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, cautioned that abandoning policies like calculating the social cost of carbon or investing heavily in clean energy research and development could have powerful effects in the medium to long term.

“The pace at which the energy system becomes less carbon-intensive, I think, is slower without supporting policies,” he said. “I just don’t think the world is going to shift to a deeply decarbonized economy by market forces alone.”

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