We hear a lot about coal these days in the news. The current Administration has clearly made making the coal industry happy a major component of its energy policy, along with oil exploration. Much of the policy has been focused on the USEPA rules and Department of Interior access to public lands and offshore leases for oil drilling as opposed to Department of Energy policies. The question is whether these policies will matter in the long-term. World-wide there is a push toward renewable energy. Oil consumption in the US is 1 million barrels less per day than in 2005, while gas use is up.
Of concern, China is leading the way toward renewable supplies given the impact on air quality that coal imported from the US creates in their major cities (recall the 2 week shutdown of Beijing prior to the 2008 Olympics). As a result, China is making the advances in solar power that the US hoped to make just a few years ago. The tariffs imposed on Chinese goods includes a 35% tariff on solar panels, which creates a challenge to the competitiveness of solar power for the near future, but may ultimately put the US further back of the pack with respect to solar research. In addition, the coal industry employs just over 50,000 people, while the solar industry employees 260,000. So how will these employees be impacted by the policies proposed by our elected officials? Why is it that oil and coal can captivate a group of officials so tightly that they ignore the longer term view – while we need oil and gas for now, those are limited fuels and the country with the patents for the next wave of technology, just as is has been for cars, nuclear power, and computers, is the economy that will grow most quickly. If we do not want to be left behind economically, we need to consider the past experiences.