MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — President Barack Obama's energy secretary said Monday that the administration isn't waging a "war on coal" and is working to maintain coal as an important part of a low-carbon energy future.
At the Mid-Atlantic Region Energy Innovation Forum at West Virginia University, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Congress needs to pass tax credits that could help power plants burn coal more cleanly. The credits would send a signal to utilities and investors about coal's viability for future power plant investments, Moniz said.
Especially in southern West Virginia, mines are continuing to close and miners keep losing good-paying jobs, with few other employment options available. The administration is infusing money into communities where the coal industry has withered to develop different economic opportunities, Moniz said.
"Plain and simple, 'War on Coal' is not what this administration has as a policy or has done," Moniz told The Associated Press. "It starts with — make no bones about it — we and the world are heading to a low-carbon future."
Republicans and some coal-state Democrats have used the phrase "war on coal" to describe President Barack Obama's policies, particularly that of limiting carbon emissions from coal power plants to combat global warming. Moniz said the low cost of natural gas has dealt coal the biggest competitive blow in energy production.
A legal challenge that has temporarily stalled enactment of carbon limits should be decided in the first half of 2017, Moniz said If the standards are upheld in court, he said they would begin being implemented in stages in 2022.
The energy secretary also toured Longview Power's coal-fired plant Monday with Manchin and Republican U.S. Rep. David McKinley, who invited Moniz to the Mountain State. Longview CEO Jeff Keffer said the plant uses up to 20 percent natural gas and is the most efficient coal-fired unit in North America. But he acknowledged that the plant would need to make upgrades and depend on a 50-50 mix of gas and coal to come close to meeting the federal carbon limits.
"We're just trying to find a pathway forward," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who opposes the carbon limits. "We have six counties in the state of West Virginia that are in a depression. It's not a recession, it's a depression."
Keffer said it may be more cost-effective to offer tax incentives to build new plants that can use half natural gas and half coal, rather than try to retrofit older plants. Moniz said he's interested in Keffer providing him a worksheet on the concept.
Moniz said a top priority of the administration is getting Congress to pass several billion dollars of tax credits for building facilities and for projects that trap carbon from coal-fired plants.
"Getting the tax credits this year would be a very, very big deal," Moniz said. "And having the tax credits in place in a trajectory for carbon reduction, in my view, is what the investment community needs."