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The State of The Union

World Coal,

Barack Obama has laid out his State of the Union Address, in which he promised action on inequality in the same week that it was announced that, by 2016, the richest 1% would own as much wealth as the remaining 99% of the global population.

According to Katty Kay, an analyst with the BBC, Obama’s “address had the virtue at least of touching on bread-and-butter issues that genuinely affect millions of Americans - savings plans for workers who don't have them, health insurance, training schemes and the minimum wage, just to name a few. For poorer Americans improvements in any of those would make a huge difference.”

Peabody Energy, however, has taken issue with the speech, as the company called on the US Administration to support technology solutions with advanced coal as vital to protecting America's supply of clean, low-cost electricity for families and businesses.

In the words of Peabody Energy Chairman and CEO Gregory H. Boyce: "It's unacceptable that we as a nation would allow growing pain at the plug to replace the pain at the pump that has been recently eased by falling oil prices. If we are really serious about providing clean, low-cost electricity, we should be doing everything we can to support broader use of advanced coal technologies."

In a statement, Peabody said that coal is the most abundant energy resource in the US, currently supplying 40% of the nation’s electricity at the lowest cost of any major fuel. Maintaining affordable energy access is especially important at a time when more than half of Americans have said as little as a US$20 increase in their utility bills would create hardship and nearly one-third of the population, a record 115 million Americans, qualify for low-income assistance with energy bills. 

Nonetheless, it is also true that coal remains one of the most polluting fossil fuels, with research also confirming that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. Peabody Energy has also run into trouble with advertising authorities for using the term ‘clean coal’ as part of its Advanced Energy for Life Campaign – a promotional campaign strategy thought up by controversial firm Burson-Marsteller, which previously helped Big Tobacco companies claim cigarettes could in fact be good for people’s health, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Peabody, however, took issue with Obama’s State of the Union Address, saying that the Administration should reverse its ill-advised power plant proposals, which will force soaring power costs on American families. One recent study concluded that the Administration's series of power plant regulations would cause nearly US$700/yr in power and natural gas increases for the typical household in 2020 compared to 2012. These costs would continue to increase year after year.

Peabody said that the clear path to achieving economic and environmental goals is continued use of today's advanced "supercritical" generation, which is being broadly deployed and is available off-the-shelf. These highly efficient, commercial technologies are essential to accelerate the transition to low-carbon, high-efficiency energy systems around the world. Each large plant also delivers an equivalent carbon dioxide benefit of removing 1 million cars from the road. Longer term, next generation carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) should be prioritised for commercialisation, along with development of a clear legal and regulatory path. CCUS should enjoy the same incentives as all energy sources.

Peabody said the US carbon-based economy also benefits “dramatically” from coal, which enables modern conveniences that improve health, longevity and quality of life. The company also pointed to a study on the "social cost of carbon", which it claims concludes that the benefits from fossil fuel energy outweigh the so-called cost of carbon by a magnitude of 50 to 500 times, based on empirical data versus modelled predictions. This report, however, flies in the face of the (highly conservative, it should be noted) IPCC report released in 2013, which demonstrated the extent of global temperature rises, the melting of ice sheets and sea ice, the retreat of the glaciers, the rising and acidification of the oceans and the changes in weather patterns. 

The IPCC report is perhaps the biggest and most rigorous process of peer review conducted in any scientific field, at any point in human history. In its dry, meticulous language, the report describes the collapse of the benign climate in which humans evolved and have prospered, and the loss of the conditions upon which many other lifeforms depend. As George Monbiot noted at the time: the IPCC report describes “climate breakdown”.

As Monbiot opined: “It doesn't matter how many windmills or solar panels or nuclear plants you build if you are not simultaneously retiring fossil fuel production. We need a global programme whose purpose is to leave most coal and oil and gas reserves in the ground, while developing new sources of power and reducing the amazing amount of energy we waste.”

It is fair to say that Peabody disagreed with the IPCC report, claiming it “intentionally omitted reference to peer-reviewed scientific studies, which were inconsistent with the IPCC’s contention that climate models run with changing orbital parameters accurately capture the reconstructed temperature patterns.”

Differing outcomes from a myriad of different studies create a cacophony of disparate opinions, and a mire of misinformation that entangles information and causes confusion for companies, investors, politicians and the public at large. Yet the situation must be cleared of this opacity and be made clear; for it is only through clarity of reliable information that we may move forward and address what must be addressed in the optimal way. Wider discussions on the use of coal and how we power the planet often overlook the smaller players in this global game. In the US, Obama’s State of the Union Address sort to redress that balance and put the focus back on the working classes with his speech on bread and butter issues. It is in the pockets of the working class that changes in energy policy will be most keenly felt; yet the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change will be felt by everyone; everywhere. Our next moves in how we address the variety of issues facing us will define, not only our generation, but quite possibly those future generations still to come. 

Written by Sam Dodson

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