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Despite The Focus On Fighting Climate Change, U.S. Demand For Coal Surged This Summer


Demand for coal is surging this summer, and that's bad news for the climate. A big U.N. report earlier this month showed that while there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming this century, humans have to stop burning fossil fuels like coal as quickly as possible. Jeff Brady of NPR's climate team is here to talk more about this.

Hi, Jeff.


SHAPIRO: We typically hear about coal-fired power plants shutting down. So what's going on? Why is demand for coal increasing?

BRADY: Well, as the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, we're all using more electricity this year, especially at workplaces. The Energy Information Administration projects electricity sales will increase nearly 3% this year. That's after falling a bit more than that last year.

And at the same time, natural gas prices are going up. The EIA expects the average price this year will be almost double what it was last year. And natural gas is burned for the biggest share of electricity generation in the U.S. So when prices went up, generators started switching back to coal because it was cheaper. We're seeing the same trends in other parts of the world, especially fast-growing economies in Asia, such as China. Coal use is up there, too.

SHAPIRO: And how long is this trend expected to last?

BRADY: You know, right now, it looks like a short-term rally, but it's still a significant one. Federal projections show coal consumption for electricity will increase about 17% this year and then decline by about half that next year. Higher prices will encourage gas drillers to produce more. That should bring prices back down. And power companies will switch back to gas again. I talked with Matt Preston. He's at the research firm Wood Mackenzie, and he says this coal rally has been going on for only a couple of months.

MATT PRESTON: It hasn't been long enough for people, I think, to change their plans. So folks who were planning to retire coal plants or to leave mining, I think they're still planning to do that.

BRADY: And Preston says he's a little less certain about other countries, especially Russia and China. He says they plan to reduce their carbon footprints to address climate change, and that would mean burning less coal, but it's not clear if they'll back up those words with action. Here in the U.S., though, Preston says it's clear the long-term decline of the coal industry will resume after this summer's boost.

SHAPIRO: But the U.N. says the world doesn't have that much time to stop burning coal. So what does this mean for the future of the climate?

BRADY: Right. You know, and coal has a bigger carbon footprint than natural gas. So for the energy sector, emissions are going up about 7% this year. The EIA says they were down 11% last year because of the pandemic, so we're moving in the wrong direction here. The Biden administration has set a goal of zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions from the country's massive power sector by 2035, and that's just 14 years away.

Right now, the administration, Democrats in Congress and their allies, they're all working on a huge budget package. It likely will have something called a clean electricity payment program that would pay utilities to add cleaner sources of power production, such as wind and solar, hydroelectric, nuclear. They hope this program, combined with more incentives for renewable energy, will still help the country meet that 2035 goal of zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jeff Brady.

Thanks a lot.

BRADY: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILOUS' "DUSK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.