Dept. of Energy Announces $122M In Funding For “Coal Innovation” Centers

A CONSOL Energy Coal Mine           Photo: CONSOL Energy

On Friday, the Energy Department announced it will provide more than $120m in funding to create “coal products innovation centers… [that] …will focus on manufacturing value-added, carbon-based products from coal, as well as developing new methods to extract and process rare earth elements and critical minerals from coal.”  The announcement was made in conjunction with a trip by the Energy Secretary to CONSOL Energy Inc.’s mining complex in western Pennsylvania, his fourth trip to a swing state in recent weeks. CONSOL announced in January that it had invested in a company that turns coal into carbon foam products for the industrial, aerospace, military, and commercial product markets.

Why This Matters: Coal innovation is an oxymoron or maybe just moronic – and certainly a dubious investment.  In fact, despite having spent more than $1 billion of our taxpayer funds in an effort to “revive and modernize” the coal industry, including expanding U.S. coal exports and the development of emission-free products from coal, the industry –both in Appalachia and the West —  continues to decline. University of Wyoming energy economist Robert Godby said of it in April, “It’s like the elevator is not just plunging down the elevator shaft; the cable broke and we’re just going straight down.” 

Coal Innovation?

CONSOL is already dipping into federal research dollars — it is also “partnering on a DOE-funded project with Ohio University and other industry partners to develop coal plastic composites that are geared toward the engineered composite decking and other building products markets. Studies show that the global market for such plastic composite materials is expected to exceed $8 billion by 2023.”  The company sees the “coal to products” market as having a bright future.  Its CEO said of their investment at the time that it “leverages certain attractive properties of coal but with significantly lower emissions and greater value uplift potential than conventional combustion applications. These products not only provide a high-margin revenue stream but also provide an intriguing new opportunity to utilize the vast resource base that our country is endowed with.”  According to E&E News, Betsy Monseu, CEO of the American Coal Council, said there’s growing interest and momentum in the coal-to-products market.

Back to Reality

Environmental groups expressed frustration. The Hill reported that Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, called coal products in the developmental stage “boondoggles” and said of the announcement, “This is something that has been tried and failed many times before to find alternative uses for coal and it … usually never makes any sense economically,” said Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign. Hitt went on to say that  “We should instead be spending those resources on providing a fair and robust economic transition for coal communities as we continue moving away from coal.”

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