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Despite environmentalists, coal is still king worldwide

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Michael Bastasch Energy Editor

Despite huge gains made by environmentalists against the U.S. coal industry, the favorite stocking-stuffer is on the rise globally.

The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group, reported that coal made up 29.9 percent of the world’s energy consumption in 2012 and is on track to beat out oil as the world’s primary energy source by 2017.

“Although some countries are trying to move away from coal use, the incredible growth of coal consumption in China and India will likely make this the main energy resource in the next few years,” reports Worldwatch.

However, it was in the U.S., the so-called Saudi Arabia of coal, that coal usage saw a huge decline — 11.9 percent — due to stricter federal environmental regulations and increase competition from natural gas.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently proposed new carbon dioxide limits for new power plants, which will make it nearly impossible to construct coal-fired power plants. This and other pending regulations have made it so hundreds of coal plants are being slated to shut down prematurely across the country.

“EPA’s carbon regulations for the coal fleet will be economically damaging, while having no practical effect on global climate change. Already, EPA regulations have contributed to the closure of more than 300 coal units in 33 states,” said Laura Sheehan, spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

The coal industry has found an economic lifeline in exporting coal to energy-hungry countries across the globe, particularly in Asia and Europe.

Coal was the fastest-growing fossil fuel source globally, reports Worldwatch, with increases coming from not only developing countries but also rich countries. Coal use increased in China by 6.1 percent and India by 9.9 percent last year. This was accompanied by a 3.4 percent usage increase in the European Union and a 5.4 percent increase in Japan.

The Fukushima nuclear plant disaster not only put Japan on the path to using more coal power, but encouraged Germany to retire some of its nuclear power over safety concerns and use more coal. U.S. coal is also inexpensive for European utilities to use.

Officials from Taiwan and South Korea have expressed interest in buying coal from Wyoming — the U.S.’s largest coal-producing state. Republican Gov. Matt Mead touted the opportunity.

“I think it’s very appropriate to market our coal around the globe,” Mead said. “As a leading producer of those energy sources, Wyoming must continue to develop relationships with both these countries and others as well.”

Pacific coal export facilities located in Oregon and Washington are the subject of an intense political battle between environmentalists and the coal industry. Environmental groups want to see coal exports to Asia blocked by state governments on the West Coast. Coal companies just want to be able to export their product as coal use declines domestically.

“Across the country, Americans are turning to cleaner energy and phasing out coal power. Because of that, the coal industry has come up with a new plan: strip-mine coal in places like Montana, Wyoming, and Appalachia; transport it on long, uncovered coal trains through cities and towns; load it onto massive cargo ships at new coal export terminals proposed to be built on the U.S. coast; and sell it to Asia,” according to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “This plan has real and potentially devastating consequences to our health, our communities, and our environment.”

Coal exports actually fell during the second quarter of 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration, but were still higher than the five-year second quarter average for coal exports.

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