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Coal's Future Cloudy Amid Shifting Politics

An emphasis on alternative energy sources drives the exodus from the fossil fuel.
By Matthew Brown - The Associated Press - Posted: 03/09/2009

SolTerrah: Coals Future Cloudy

Sunflower Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant churns out electricity recently in Holcomb, Kan.

In 2007, the Department of Energy forecast 151 coal plants would be built in coming years. Now that number is 95.

BILLINGS, Mont. — Beneath the frozen plains of eastern Montana and Wyoming lie the largest coal deposits in the world — enough to last the United States more than a century at the nation's current burn rate. The fuel literally spills from the ground where streambanks cut into the earth, hinting at reserves estimated at 180 billion tons.

But even here lawsuits over global warming and the changing political landscape in Washington are pummeling an industry that has long been the backbone of America's power supply.

In recent weeks, a group of rural Montana electric co-ops abandoned a partially built 250-megawatt coal plant, ending a four-year legal campaign by conservationists to stop the project. The co-ops plan to instead get their electricity from a natural-gas plant — more expensive for customers but also more likely to get built.

A few miles away, the U.S. Air Force dropped plans for a major coal-to-jet fuel plant once touted as the harbinger of a new market for coal. There are no signs it will be revived. Other plants are moving forward in Montana and at least a dozen other states, but the exodus from coal has hit every corner of the country. Last Thursday, two more were shelved — plants in Iowa and Nevada that would have generated enough power for 1.6 million homes.

In Nevada, LS Power said it was postponing a 1,600-megawatt coal plant and will instead focus on tapping the state's geothermal, wind and solar potential. Iowa's Interstate Power and Light dropped a 630-megawatt plant as it pursues a 200-megawatt wind farm.

"In the last year, the world has changed 180 degrees," said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign.

In 2007, the Department of Energy forecast 151 plants would be built in coming years. The agency's latest forecast put the figure at 95. Driven by the change at the White House, the political landscape for coal is shifting fast. President Barack Obama — once a reliable supporter of the industry — on Feb. 17 signed an economic stimulus package with $16.8 billion for renewable energy and efficiency programs.

The coal industry was left with just $3.4 billion. Congress had earlier removed $50 billion in loan guarantees for coal-to-liquids plants and the nuclear industry. Yet any proclamation of coal's demise would be premature. Coal companies are scrambling after federal subsidies for cleaner-coal technologies — hoping to at least soften the beating they have taken over climate change.

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