Great Moments in US Energy Policy: In the 1970's, The US Government Mandated Coal Use For New Power Plants

What does government energy policy have in common with government food advice?  Every 30-40 years the Federal government reverses itself 180 degrees and declares all the stuff that they said was bad before is now good today.

Case in point:  Coal-fired electrical generation.  Coal is pretty much the bette noir of environmentalists today, so much so that Obama actually pledged to kill the coal industry when he was running for office.   The combination of new regulation combined with the rapid expansion of cheap natural gas supplies has done much to kill coal use (as illustrated by this bankruptcy today).

But many people may not realize that the rise of coal burning in power plants in the US was not just driven by economics -- it was mandated by government policy

Federal policies moved in coal's favor in the 1970s. With the Middle East oil crisis, policymakers began to adopt policies to try and shift the nation toward greater coal consumption, which was a domestic energy resource. The Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act of 1974 directed the Federal Energy Administration to prohibit the use of oil or natural gas by electric utilities that could use coal, and it authorized the FEA to require that new electric power plants be able to use coal. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 extended those powers for two years and authorized $750 million in loan guarantees for new underground low-sulfur mines. Further pro-coal mandates were passed in the late-1970s.

I was aware of the regulations at the time as I was working in an oil refinery in the early 80's and it affected us a couple of ways.  First, it killed demand for low-sulphur heavy fuel oil.  And second, it sidelined several co-generation projects that made a ton of sense (generating electricity and steam from wasted or low-value portions of the oil barrel) but ran afoul of these coal mandates.


  1. herdgadfly:

    Arch Coal owns the 5th largest coal mine in the world turning out over 100 million tons per year from its surface-mined Black Thunder operation in the Powder River Basin in Campbell County, Wyoming. Extraction is cheap and rail service is in place so this monster (along with its adjacent Coal Creek Mine) is going to be the NEW WESTERN Arch Coal and the company's Appalachian underground operations will be spun off or more likely closed in Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and perhaps Illiinois. Turn out the lights, the party's over!

  2. donald:

    "Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war
    with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.
    The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it
    followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible." - 1984
    At least they have not purged the record of their Coal mandates...yet. much like NOAA altered and tried to eradicate their past data and information, this too may become the norm. as swaying opinion goes, so too will the government version of history. Those that protest, well see what has happened to "Deniers" federal funding, bye bye. Key positions, bye bye.

  3. Bowdoin81:

    The Majority Whip in the US Senate at the time? Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

  4. Mike Powers:

    40 years later, we have biofuel mandates. And I bet that in the 2050s we'll be talking about biofuels the way we're talking about coal now, aka "what were those idiots thinking"