At the same time, a major market force is working to drive down U.S. coal demand: a surge in production of cheap natural gas, which produces half the emissions of coal. Now that gas is less expensive than coal—and less likely to be subject to future regulations—utilities are shifting to gas as their primary fuel source.
So, Duncan faces an uphill battle in his defense of coal. While putting out heartstring messages with a human face, he will take a nuanced approach to the science and policy debate. He concedes, for example, that coal pollution should be cleaned up—eventually. He’ll make the case that EPA regulations are coming too quickly and aggressively and will lead to shutdowns of electricity generation.
“You can make a science case … but the economic case for this whole country just doesn’t add up,” he said. “Where are you going to get this electricity? How are you going to fire up the grid? We’ll run into that problem as we close down all these plants.… We’re not replacing it fast enough. Gas is replacing some, but wind and solar takes forever.”
One thing you probably won’t see is Duncan on television railing against the science that says fossil-fuel emissions cause global warming. While many Republicans have spent the 2012 campaign disputing climate change, their position—which is at odds with strong scientific consensus—has drawn criticism of the Republican Party as anti-science.
“You’ll never see him making an outlandish propaganda claim on Fox News,” said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate who ran the Democratic National Committee when Duncan chaired the RNC.
“He’s very thorough and meticulous. And he’ll know what he’s talking about with coal. He has a thoroughness, he won’t leave anything to chance. He has a complete understanding of every facet of American politics. He’ll serve coal well. It’s a good choice they made,” Dean said.
In an ironic twist, Duncan acknowledges that one policy that will be essential to the future of coal relies on federal spending, specifically on research like that done by the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, an office championed by Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu in their push for cleaner energy.
Chu has been pilloried by the coal industry for a 2007 speech in which he said, “Coal is my nightmare.” But Duncan acknowledged that the future of coal could depend on energy-technology breakthroughs funded by the government. “They’re doing some great research on this at ARPA-E,” he said. “It could make a difference for the country.”