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Editorial comment

This month, we take a look at the global coal-fired power industry, including a special report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) that considers the future of coal-fired generation in the US (pp. 46 – 55). In its reference case, the EIA sees coal-fired generation decreasing through to 2015, when coal will account for 38% of total generation, down from 45% in 2010. After that, it picks up slightly through to 2035, although it remains below its historical peak. But the EIA also recognises that, should carbon pricing be introduced in the US, as it has been in the EU, then the projected levels of coal-fired generation would be “substantially lower” than this reference case.

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A new study from the National Coal Council might, however, provide a path to a more optimistic future (see Coal News, p. 8).1 The study, which was commissioned by the secretary of energy, Steven Chu, examines the potential market for using CO2 captured at coal-fired power plants and coal-to-liquids (CTL) plants for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). It found that 18 – 31 billion t of additional CO2 could be used in US oilfields to yield an additional 3.5 million bbl/day of oil. Development of CTL plants could also add an additional 2.5 million bbl/day of oil, as well as providing a further source of CO2 for EOR. Taken as a whole, these advanced coal technologies would require an estimated 775 million tpa of coal – of which 600 million tpa would be new demand – securing the future of US coal miners and providing lasting economic and environmental benefits.

This study is good reminder of the positive role that coal can play in meeting the twin challenges of energy security and climate change – not just in the US, but globally. The technology is available: CO2 is already captured at a coal gasification plant in North Dakota and piped to Weyburn, Canada, for use in EOR, and natural CO2 has been used for EOR in Texas for over 30 years; meanwhile China converts hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal a year to liquids and substitute natural gas, reducing its dependence on imported oil and LNG.

What then is required? First, there needs to be an acceptance that coal-fired power is necessary and will continue to be necessary if the global demand for power is to be met.  Secondly, there needs to be a shift in the way we view CO2: realising its value as a commodity to be utilised, rather than just another pollutant to be eradicated, would positively reframe and enhance the climate change debate. Finally, Governments must show more and better leadership in establishing legal and regulatory environments that support developing technologies and new industries, such as CCS/EOR and CTL/coal-to-gas. Then we may finally begin to see a tenable and sustainable answer emerge to the global energy challenge.

1. BAHURA, R.A., et al., Harnessing Coal's Carbon Content to Advance the Economy, Environment, and Energy Security (National Coal Council; June, 2012). An executive summary is available at: