The coal crowd is finding out about the old political adage that there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
Alstom, a French manufacturer that builds equipment for utilities, has followed Duke Energy out of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a band of coal production companies, coal-hauling railroads, and coal-burning utilities throwing up obstacles to climate legislation.
ACCCE is snarled in a messy affair involving forged letters against climate legislation that its DC lobbying firm sent to members of Congress.
No one should want to associate with an outfit carrying dirty socks like that in its baggage, but Duke has bigger fish to fry than waxing indignant about amateur hour on K Street.
Membership in ACCCE no longer serves Duke's interests.
Duke generates a lot of energy with coal. So do many other utilities. Coal-fired generation supplies half the nation's electricity.
At the end of the day, however, utilities don't have to generate with coal. There are other ways to produce electricity besides coal.
It all comes down to costs and profit. If utilities could make more money fueling their boilers with orange peels instead of coal, coal would be out and citrus growers would have a new best friend.
Hence, the divide over climate legislation. Duke, along with like-minded utilities and manufacturers serving the utility market, figure it's better to shape climate legislation that suits their interests than to stand stubbornly aside, arms folded, and risk an outcome that doesn't -- either a bad bill or no bill at all.
If legislation that puts a price on carbon shrinks the market for coal and gives an economic edge to gas, nuclear, and renewables, then utilities will turn to those sources. Nothing personal against coal, just business.
For coal companies, however, it is personal. There aren't many uses for steam coal today except burning it in power plant boilers. If that market shrinks, the coal industry would shrink accordingly.
The ACCCE insists that it's not unalterably opposed to climate legislation. But that message became bollixed up by the hell-no stance of some of its members. That didn't suit Duke, so Duke bailed. Alstom followed and General Electric might be next out the door.
As Duke said in a statement, "We believe ACCCE is constrained by influential member companies who will not support passing climate change legislation in 2009 or 2010.... This is not consistent with Duke Energy's work to pass economy-wide and cost-effective climate change legislation as soon as possible."
Big Coal could be constructive if it's serious about making sequestration work. The right kind of climate bill could further sequestration along. As long as some coal companies would rather be part of the problem than part of the solution, however, then their political isolation serves the greater good of passing climate legislation.
There's another political adage about tables and menus that Big Coal ought to remember. You can either be in a chair at the side of the table or on a serving tray at the center of the table. Take your pick.
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