The Biden administration arrived this month at international climate talks in Scotland with the intent to prove the United States was again ready to lead the fight against global warming.
But when more than 40 countries signed a pledge to phase out coal in the coming decades, the United States was conspicuously absent.
The White House’s reluctance to sign the pledge says a lot about coal’s continued political influence in the face of declining fortunes.
Few countries have hammered coal as hard as the United States in the last decade. Stagnant electricity demand, low natural gas prices and the ever-falling cost of renewables have fueled the shutdown of U.S. coal plants — overpowering efforts from former President Trump to revive the industry’s fortunes.
Yet coal retains political power. The Biden administration’s decision not to sign the coal phaseout pledge comes as Democrats haggle over a budget bill in Congress that would direct billions of dollars in subsidies to clean energy. Finalizing that deal requires securing the vote of Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from coal-dependent West Virginia who holds the swing vote in the Senate.
“What you’re seeing in the U.S. as part of that announcement is a quiet belief that markets will do the dirty work, and politicians don’t need to get their hands dirty by saying the quiet part out loud,” said Justin Guay, who tracks climate policy at the Sunrise Project, an international advocacy organization.
U.S. coal generation is up in 2021, thanks to a rise in natural gas prices. Few analysts think the rebound in the United States will last. The bigger question is how long American coal plants will be able to hang on.
The United States remains the world’s third largest coal consumer — even after a decade that saw the country close a quarter of its coal capacity. Another quarter is scheduled to close by 2030, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration figures.
When the International Energy Agency mapped out a path to net-zero emissions earlier this year, it concluded coal use in rich countries such as the United States would need to cease in the 2030s followed by developing economies in the 2040s.