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Kerry’s COP28 coal pledge means nothing. It’s the war on gas that’s scary

US Climate Envoy John Kerry was not elected by anyone to represent the United States at climate conferences, nor was he confirmed to his position by the US Senate. The job he holds is an informal one, though highly paid, a position that affords him power to do little more than fly around the world and talk, something he does with great frequency.

He certainly has no authority to commit the United States to treaties or other international agreements, which have traditionally required Senate approval. Thus, Kerry’s announcement this week at the COP28 meeting in Dubai that he has committed the United States to be a signatory to a deal to shut down all unabated coal-fired power plants seems specious at best. Certainly, it is non-binding on the US government, rendering it little more than a symbolic action designed to generate news stories from an eagerly cooperative media establishment.

The deal, pushed by something called The Powering Past Coal Alliance, claims to now include 59 national governments, none of which are among the leading builders and users of coal-fired power plants globally. Well, other than the US, assuming Kerry’s non-binding commitment manages to stick.

It should be noted that almost none of the media stories about this deal focus on the most important word in this document, “unabated.” Put simply, that word means the emissions from an unabated coal-fired plant is allowed to flow into the atmosphere without being scrubbed by filters or captured via carbon capture technology.

“We will be working to accelerate unabated coal phase-out across the world, building stronger economies and more resilient communities,” Kerry said in a statement. “The first step is to stop making the problem worse: stop building new unabated coal power plants.”

Well, first, in the United States, no one is building new unabated coal power plants. That isn’t allowed and hasn’t been allowed for many years now. In other words, this agreement, at least for the United States, is a solution in search of a problem. Second, even Kerry has admitted that the existing coal plants in the US all contain scrubber technology that prevents 90 per cent or more of the pollution they emit from entering the atmosphere.

Mr Kerry talks a lot about replacing the remaining coal power plants in the US and seemingly everywhere else except for China and India (those two countries always somehow manage to be excluded from such conversations) with wind and solar. What he doesn’t like to focus on is the fact that market-driven factors have already forced the closing of over half the US coal plants that existed in 2008, the vast majority of which have been replaced by natural gas-fired power plants. That market driven action has enabled the US to lead the world community in carbon emissions reduction, cutting them to levels not seen since the early 1990s.

The problem for Kerry in admitting to this reality is that he and the Biden government are also now enacting regulations and executive orders designed to hamper and ultimately eliminate natural gas power plants in addition to coal. They hope that they can force the mass adoption and usage of renewables in the same way they have been attempting (and failing) to force mass adoption of electric vehicles.

The danger of this plan is now becoming manifest in increasing reliability issues across the nation’s various regional power grids. Grid managers in Texas, where more than a third of US natural gas is produced, recently published a report detailing a rising potential for emergency measures including rolling blackouts this winter due to a dangerous shortage of dispatchable thermal capacity.

Texas is the largest wind generation state in America and has seen a recent explosion in the build-out of new solar capacity. But grid managers in Texas and other regional grids know that wind and solar let them down when the weather doesn’t suit them, as in major winter storms like Texas experienced in February, 2021. Things are now so marginal on the Texas grid that ERCOT, the grid manager, says there is a 14-16 per cent chance of blackouts even in much less harsh weather conditions like the freeze event it experienced in early December, 2022.

As a practical matter, this commitment by Mr. Kerry, at least as currently stated, will have little impact on America’s coal sector. But the Biden policies of killing coal generation and simultaneously working to halt the building of new natural gas generation capacity represent almost a death sentence for electric reliability in the United States. Congressional Republicans must take note and work to ensure this does not happen.


David Blackmon had a 40 year career in the US energy industry, the last 23 years of which were spent in the public policy arena, managing regulatory and legislative issues for various companies. He continues to write and podcast on energy matters

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