Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette is expected to announce a $122 million plan today to establish innovation centers in coal-producing regions, according to sources.
The secretary, who is scheduled to tour Consol Energy Inc.'s mining complex in western Pennsylvania today, also touted the fossil fuel's "rock-solid reliability" for delivering electricity in a Patriot News/PennLive editorial yesterday and said the Trump administration's support for coal is unshaken.
"We can't get rid of coal. It is essential to this nation," Brouillette wrote. "The good news is that America's coal is as abundant as it is reliable."
He added that the United States has more coal than any other country, "enough to last for hundreds of years."
The $122 million funding opportunity — which is expected to be formally launched in August — aims to bolster research and development into the production of critical minerals, rare earth elements, carbon-based products and other mining material. It follows a January announcement from Consol, which said at the time that it was backing a company that turns coal into carbon foam products (Energywire, Jan. 13).
Today's trip is the fourth for Brouillette in recent weeks to a swing state that could play a key role in President Trump's reelection efforts. Brouillette traveled yesterday to Ohio with Vice President Mike Pence to attend the rollout of Lordstown Motors Corp.'s all-electric pickup truck (see related story).
In Ohio, Brouillette offered a hint of the upcoming plan, noting that a lot of battery technology relies on critical minerals and rare earth elements — much of which the United States imports.
He said DOE is looking at ways to extract the materials "from untapped sources, such as our vast coal reserves here in America."
Under Trump, DOE has said it has invested more than $1 billion in an effort to "revive and modernize" the coal industry, including expanding U.S. coal exports; research into coal-fired plants; and the development of emission-free products from coal, including carbon fiber, graphite, graphene, building materials and battery materials. It estimates that its coal-to-products initiative could result in 400 million tons of additional U.S. coal production.
Skeptics, however, have questioned whether it's a good use of taxpayer dollars to spend money on what they say is a far-fetched promise to save the industry.
"There's been a lot of pressure on the DOE secretary from day one to bring jobs back," said James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University, where Gov. Jim Justice (R) in January announced an agreement with a company that plans to open a facility to research alternative uses for coal.
"It's what we do in America, we innovate," Van Nostrand said. "But I don't think we ought to be raising expectations that there's going to be a significant transformation. The economics are just not there."
Randall Atkins, chief executive at Wyoming-based Ramaco Carbon, which has a research park campus in West Virginia, said he expects advanced carbon products and materials to yield a "significant form of alternative demand" for coal beyond power generation.
Atkins — who helped develop a National Coal Council report last year that looked at using coal beyond conventional markets such as power generation and steelmaking — said there are "potentially large markets" for carbon fiber and other building products made from coal, including materials such as rebar and roofing shingles.
"It's frankly got a higher value proposition, plus it's got a big environmental plus to it," Atkins said of using coal for alternative purposes. "First of all, you're not burning it. Secondly — as carbon fiber as an example — if we can have lightweight cars on a massive scale, just think how much savings that you could have with gasoline consumption."
Ramaco, which last year was awarded more than $5 million in DOE grants, earlier this month announced a partnership with the department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to "explore innovations" for the conversion of coal to high-value advanced carbon products and materials.
Under the agreement, Ramaco and ORNL will work on projects that use coal as a manufacturing feedstock for carbon fibers, building products and electrodes for energy storage devices, the company said, among other uses.
Addison Stark, associate director for energy innovation at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said coal companies should be investing more heavily in other uses for coal, given its rapid decline as a power source. He noted that both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations backed the research, as well.
"Doing research and investing in innovation that can transition coal from being an energy feedstock into being a material feedstock is valuable for maintaining the economic activity in a lot of these coal regions," Stark said, noting that coal is valuable for its mineral properties, beyond creating energy. "Even in a fully decarbonized economy, we can still extract value from fossil fuels."
Stark said he doesn't expect new uses for coal to rival its use as an energy source, but said that "you may be able to see at least a fraction replaced, but it takes research to develop new uses."
Betsy Monseu, CEO of the American Coal Council, said there's growing interest and momentum in the coal-to-products market, and she was pleased to see Brouillette's visit.
She billed it as a "twofold opportunity," to talk about traditional coal market issues as well as the development of nontraditional markets like coal to products.
Still, many environmentalists are opposed to using coal even if it's not emitting carbon because of the pollution and safety concerns related to mining.
"Most of these experimental coal technologies have turned out to be boondoggles and have never been economic. Whether it's turning coal into some sort of substitute for gas or petroleum, the economics have never made sense and they still have the same environmental problems," said Mary Anne Hitt, national director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "Coal is going to continue to be not competitive for electricity, and these projects are more false promises to communities that coal is going to come back."
Trump, Biden and protests
Brouillette's Pennsylvania visit comes as a New York Times/Siena College poll yesterday showed Trump trailing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by 10 points in the Keystone State.
Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by fewer than 45,000 votes in 2016.
Polls show voters perturbed by Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 120,000 Americans, and in disagreement with his handling of protests against racial discrimination. But some polls suggest Trump has an edge over Biden when it comes to the economy, and Trump's campaign has made clear that it plans to point to his embrace of the energy industry.
Biden's energy plan aims for the United States to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 but does not address coal production. It calls for helping coal workers transition to other jobs and aiding coal-reliant communities in diversifying their economies.