The Oil and the Glory

Coal’s dim future

Coal’s dim future

Duke Energy’s proposed $13.7 billion purchase of Progress Energy announced this morning could be a blow to Big Coal, which has ambitions to remain the planet’s preeminent fuel for electric power. Both Duke and Progress have big ambitions for nuclear-fueled power plants, and Duke CEO Jim Rogers is among corporate America’s loudest advocates for sharply slashed CO2 emissions.

Here is Rogers getting grilled by comedian Stephen Colbert:

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Much in the climate change arena has gone topsy-turvy in the last two years. Back in 2009, China and India seemed to be among the main roadblocks to a global accord on reducing the emission of heat-trapping gases; now, China is aggressively lowering its growth of CO2 emissions absent corresponding cuts in the United States. Back then, it was an article of faith that the U.S. — the world’s second-largest CO2 emitter — was going to put a price on carbon, and lead a global campaign against Arctic melting; among the leading such voices were corporate giants including ExxonMobil. Now, climate skepticism is ascendant, Republican leaders vow to halt Obama Administration policy to begin regulation of CO2 emissions, and corporate green-speak is heard much less in the halls of power, as Anne Mulkern reported at Greenwire.

The Duke-Progress deal illustrates how facts on the ground are nonetheless going a bit in the green lobby’s direction in the United States. Steve Mufson of the Washington Post writes that for the second-straight year, industry has launched the construction of no new coal-fired plants. By comparison, he reports, construction started on 20 units in 19 plants from 2000 to 2008. But last year, plans were abandoned to build 38 coal-fired plants, and announcements were made on the retirement of 48 aging ones. And the U.S. Energy Information Administration says it doesn’t expect any new plants to be built, apart from coal-fired generators already under construction or clean-coal demonstration projects, reports National

Notwithstanding the assertions of James Fallows in the Atlantic, coal is on the defensive around the world. China, as we have previously discussed, is likely to attempt to cut back its plans for increased coal use because of the pollution, and turn far more heavily to plentiful and cheap natural gas.

Quite apart from these sectoral shifts, the Duke-Progress deal could not-so-subtly impact U.S. politics. If their deal is approved by regulators, the combined companies would be the country’s largest single utility. One of the reasons for the victory of climate skeptics has been the lobbying of coal, oil and other industry lobbyists. But now Rogers’ voice would become more influential in that lobby.