There's a War on Coal Raging in Rep. Ralph Hall's Head

We haven't checked in on our favorite congressman, Representative Ralph Hall (R-Antediluvian Era) lately. Not since he dove from a functioning aircraft dressed in nothing but a form-fitting American flag. Turns out, he's been rummaging through a dusty, cobwebbed steamer trunk stuffed with contraceptives and religious freedom, the war on marriage, the war on religion, Bill Clinton's penis and other dependable boogeymen.

He came up with a pearl this time: The War on Coal. Indeed, he recently threw his weight as the chair of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology behind a bill intended to "rein in the Obama Administration's out-of-control EPA, which is waging an all-out war on American energy, and coal is at the heart of that war." Its passage -- the House's last legislative act before the November elections -- was resounding in that chamber of fever dreams, of course, and the bill will almost certainly see a repurposed future in the Senate men's room. That's because it prohibits the EPA from regulating the emission of greenhouse gases and mercury. It prevents tougher regulation of mountaintop removal mining. The hard-won environmental protections of generations would be gutted. As such, the bill's death should be an ignominious one.

But that's not the point. What's really at the "heart" of the war Hall is rallying his fellow Republicans to is nothing less than the economic fate of his own district. As he notes, Luminant's Monticello coal-fired power plant resides in the 4th Texas Congressional District, along with its lignite coal mines. Let there be no doubt about the fact that its future is in question. The company threatened to idle two units at the plant last summer if an EPA regulation curbing emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide went into effect. There was great GOP and industry consternation. A time of great tribulation in the electricity markets was foretold. Then, when the danger passed and a federal appeals court struck the EPA rule, Luminant announced it was idling them anyway for six months. It was cheaper to shut the coal-fired units down than it was to run them.

That part, Hall doesn't bother mentioning.

It's easy to see why not. Because it belies the very premise of the war on coal. Back when natural gas was expensive and the margin between it and coal-fired generation was vast, coal-fired power plants were printing money. Then hydraulic fracturing opened up heretofore unrecoverable subterranean realms to gas production, and suddenly that once-wide margin narrowed until there were times when it simply did not pay for generators like Luminant to even bother stoking the coal fires.

If there's a war on coal, it's a war of attrition waged by a market that no longer smiles upon the carboniferous fuels of yore. The war Hall speaks of exists solely in his own mind.

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