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Energy secretary defends Obama administration's coal policies

| Monday, July 29, 2013, 2:24 p.m.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — President Obama's top Energy official came to the heart of coal country on Monday to defend the administration's impact on the industry, emphasizing how it uses government scientists in the region to buoy Big Coal.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told more than 300 scientists at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown that they will help overcome some of the world's biggest challenges. The country needs to fight climate change, and the administration has put down $14 billion for research on how to cut coal pollution so coal can be environmentally friendly and competitive with other fuels.

“We have an all-of-the-above (energy) strategy. And it's real,” Moniz said during a half-hour speech shown live to other federal labs, including one in South Park. “These are decadal challenges, but to answer them on that timescale, we have no time to waste. And, again, what you all are doing here at NETL is really central to that.”

Republicans — especially in Pennsylvania and West Virginia — have led an onslaught against Obama in the past month, claiming his effort to ramp up pollution control is a “war on jobs.”

The coal industry is under threat because low natural gas and electricity prices led several plants to close rather than spend hundreds of millions of dollars to meet stiffer pollution-control requirements. That includes FirstEnergy Corp., which announced July 9 that plants in Washington and Greene counties will close in October, its third round of power-plant closings in two years.

With 1,300 employees between them, the federal energy labs in Morgantown and South Park long have been key in the quest to clean up coal. Several scientists showed off cutting-edge work they're doing to capture the carbon that burns off coal. Decades of research have led to progress, but it's still 10 to 15 years before it can work affordably for large power plants, George Richards, one of the lead researchers in Morgantown told Moniz.

That's the problem with what the Obama administration is doing, said George Ellis, a lobbyist who leads the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance in Harrisburg. If the government ramps up regulations before the industry has technology to fully and affordably adapt, coal producers will lose out when electricity providers buy power on long-term contracts. It threatens the industry, he said.

“If you listen to the president's climate change strategy (announcement) back in June, he essentially vowed to transform America's electric use away from coal,” Ellis said, saying billions in research money may not be able to overcome that. “If they're willing to defer decisions on those regs until there is technology deployable to comply with that, then it has meaning. (Otherwise) it's worthless to the coal industry.”

The industry had years to anticipate the need for better pollution controls, experts have said. It's simply losing ground in the free market, Moniz said. Appalachia's shale gas boom transformed the energy industry, leading to low prices and persuading investors to back — nearly exclusively — gas-fueled power plants and some wind and solar plants.

“Natural gas is going to dominate that market, whether we like it or not, just simply because there's now so much of it and it's so cheap, even compared to coal,” said David E. Hess, who was Department of Environmental Protection secretary under former Gov. Tom Ridge.

The government's role is to try to ensure the market has choices while pushing the country to a low-carbon economy that doesn't damage the earth's climate, Moniz said. Richards, the researcher, said he's confident the lab can one day make carbon-capture affordable enough to ensure coal stays in the mix.

“I wouldn't be coming to work in the morning if I didn't feel we had a shot of making this go,” he said.

Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or

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