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High gas prices have dominated headlines for the last few months, and with good reason. Every family feels the pain when the price at the pump hovers around $4 per gallon. But high gas prices aren’t the only energy issue facing America today. 

The nation’s broader energy security is also under pressure, and as utility bills move higher, this dynamic is no less worrisome than the sky-high gas prices we see every time we drive by a station. 

Over the last decade, politicians worked overtime to take fossil fuels, especially coal, out of the nation’s energy mix. They pushed to retire coal and natural gas-fired power plants as quickly as possible, heralding the emergence of wind and solar as a cure-all capable of weaning the nation off of these fossil fuels and advancing our most ambitious environmental goals.

But as is always the case, it’s dangerous to be in a hurry to make a bad decision. We must not rush headlong into a decision that’s difficult to reverse without understanding its full implications and repercussions. 

The press for coal plant retirements in particular came amid a time of rock-bottom natural gas prices and widespread optimism about the scalability and affordability of renewable energy. Fast forward to today, and while wind and solar continue to grow at a rapid pace, the economics of natural gas have changed. To make matters worse, utilities and power producers increasingly find themselves desperately in need of coal — always one of our most dependable and cost-effective power sources — to keep the lights on. 

Unfortunately, in today’s market landscape, coal isn’t always available when it’s needed. Call it a case of “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” but utilities are none too pleased when they call for these traditional power sources and come up empty.

With the global supply chain still in utter shambles and shipments of everything from commodities to online orders delayed, power plants in places like South Carolina and Florida have been unable to obtain the coal they needed in a timely manner. Eager for a place to point the finger, they looked to freight railroad service delays as the culprit. Maybe it made sense in their heads given all the coverage of the supply chain in the media, but convenient as it may have been, it’s simply not true.

Railroads aren’t immune to the challenges facing all components of our national freight and transportation infrastructure, but they’re not the cause of coal shortages. So, what is the cause?

It all goes back to our eagerness to abandon fossil fuels. The pace of coal plant retirements has been rapid, and despite their promise for the future, renewables (and the transmission needed to make renewables work at scale) aren’t going to come online overnight. When gaps emerge, as they have recently, coal hasn’t been available to step in to make up the shortfall.

That’s not because we don’t have coal here at home. In fact, American coal companies are extracting as much coal as they have in years and are making plenty of money in the process. The problem is that in a domestic landscape that has been hostile to coal for years, coal producers have shifted their focus away from investing in the United States’ long-term energy security and toward short-term profits from foreign buyers like China. We have the coal we need to maintain energy security … it’s just being shipped overseas. 

It’s human nature to point fingers when a crisis emerges. The push to blame freight railroads for the absence of on-call coal is a classic rush to judgment in search of a scapegoat and lacks the crucial context needed to understand not just where we are today, but how we got here. 

Actions have consequences, and the United States’ determination to move away from coal created gaps in our energy security as conditions changed. Coal companies responded to domestic pressure by seeking — and finding — foreign buyers. These challenges speak to the complexity of our nation’s power grid and the importance of diversity and dependability of the sources of energy. 

James “Spider” Marks is a retired U.S. Army major general and strategic adviser to the GAIN Coalition — Grow America’s Infrastructure Now.


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