HOUSTON—It wasn’t until the last full day of a major international energy conference here that coal became a sizable topic of conversation.
That might be a bit surprising given the fossil fuel provides nearly half of all the electricity in the country and will continue to for decades regardless of any federal regulation or legislation constraining greenhouse gases. Coal is the cheapest source of power today, but it’s also the dirtiest and emits more greenhouse gases than any type of energy.
The top executive of the world’s biggest private-sector coal company spoke to attendees Thursday at the 30th annual IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates Conference. Peabody Energy CEO Gregory Boyce's comments came after a jam-packed week that focused on how shale natural gas is transforming the power sector and besting coal as the electricity generator of choice. Boyce, unsurprisingly had a different perspective.
“What shale gas has done here in the U.S. is provided, I think, unfortunately a little bit more window of time for politicians not to really focus on what our energy policy in this country ought to be,” Boyce told IHS CERA Chairman and conference host Daniel Yergin in a discussion.
He said his company is working on “clean-coal” technology, known as carbon capture and sequestration, with a group of Chinese companies. He said it’s also critical that CCS is developed here in the United States, too, but that his company is not waiting for that and is instead dramatically moving its interests overseas.
“In 2003, 1 percent of our earnings were outside the U.S.,” Boyce said. “Last year, that number has averaged slightly over 50 percent.”
That prompted a quick “What?” from Yergin.
“Very quick transformation,” Boyce responded.
Other top utility executives whose companies have more renewable and clean portfolios underscored the importance of CCS technology, because they realize coal will be a part of the nation’s future energy mix.
“With the amount of coal resources we have why not invest in cleaner coal generation?” said Next Era Chairman and CEO Lewis Hay. Hay referenced legislation introduced last Congress by then-Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., that would have added a small fee onto customers’ utility bills to help pay for clean technology research and development, including for CCS. “Our entire industry supported it,” Hay said on Thursday afternoon. “Frankly, I didn’t find anybody in Congress who didn’t support it yet that bill has gone nowhere. It’s a shame.”
It will be hard, if not impossible, to get CCS up and running without significant federal money supporting it.
This article appears in the March 11, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.