Kicking the Coal Habit

Kicking the Coal Habit

America may be coming to grips with the dark side of our cheapest, most abundant energy source, but a plan to unload it on Asia threatens to poison our planet.

By Ted Williams/Photography by David T. Hanson
Published: May-June 2012

What is the future of coal-fired power? Is it a "dead man walking," as defined by Kevin Parker, Deutsche Bank's global head of asset management, who notes that banks won't finance it, insurance companies won't insure it, and the EPA is after it? Or is it an economic elixir that will rouse comatose Americans from the canvas like Rocky Balboa and "together . . . power the next great comeback [with] clean coal," as depicted in the TV ads of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity?

Probably neither. 

 One of the strongest voices for coal-industry reform is Ann Weeks, litigation counsel for the Clean Air Task Force, a non-profit focused on protecting air and climate. She offers this: "The problem with wind and solar is that they're intermittent--the wind doesn't blow all the time, and the sun doesn't shine all the time. You have to store the extra, and we don't have that technology. I think we have to resign ourselves to finding a solution that cleans up coal."

But we already have that in "clean coal," right? 

Not hardly. "Clean coal" is a term concocted for the industry by R&R Partners, the ad agency that, by hatching the equally brazen untruth "What happens here stays here," helped Sin City seduce gullible tourists into gambling away their money and marriages. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition's Vivian Stockman provides "clean coal's" best definition: "the mother of all oxymorons." 

Among the costs of mining, processing, and burning coal are mountains, prairies, rivers, lakes, fish, wildlife, livestock, people, and climate. And while pollution-control technology captures some of the poisons and carcinogens that mix with air and water, calling treated coal waste "clean" is the equivalent of settling out solids from municipal sewage, piping what's left into public reservoirs, and labeling it "sanitized effluent." 

 

America is moving away from coal. Three years ago plans were under way for at least 150 new coal plants, but not one has broken ground since--largely because natural gas is cheaper and cleaner. Our existing coal plants tend to be old and decrepit, and expensive and difficult to retrofit with required pollution-control technology. In fact the Associated Press reports that this will cause the inevitable shutdown of 32 facilities (mostly coal-fired) and the possible shutdown of 36 others. 

Still, the world's largest private-sector coal producer, Peabody Energy, may be right when it proclaims that "coal's best days are ahead." This is because it and other companies plan to sell strip-mined coal to Asia. They propose to move it by train to ports in Washington and Oregon from the Powder River Basin in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana--an area the size of West Virginia. Most of the basin's springs and shallow aquifers are in coal seams, and are poisoned and desiccated by strip mining. As a result, much of the cost of vastly expanded strip mining for the Asian market would be borne by wildlife, farmers, and ranchers. 

Peabody Energy is the main player in a plan to annually extract an additional 50 million tons of Powder River Basin coal for sale to Asia. The company claims that port expansion near Bellingham, Washington (at Cherry Point), and construction of new rail lines would create "8,400 direct, indirect, and induced jobs" and inject $900 million into the economy. Similar though smaller projects are planned at Longview and Grays Harbor in Washington and Coos Bay, Port St. Helens, and near Boardman in Oregon. 

China, where most of the coal would go, is building the equivalent of two 500-megawatt coal-fired plants each week. Although it produces twice as much coal as the United States, it has gone from a net coal exporter in 2008 to a net importer today. 

Writing in Yale Environment 360, an online magazine, Jonathan Thompson draws an apt comparison between exporting coal and exporting tobacco, calling coal "the cigarette of our new age." A quarter-century ago the tobacco industry was also comatose on the canvas. Medical evidence had given the lie to its mantra that smoking and cancer weren't linked; no longer could it advertise on television or radio; and on its very packaging it had to warn customers against using its product.Then it found a market in Asia (mostly China) so lucrative as to "confound the imagination," as a Philip Morris vice president effused. Tobacco companies sponsor at least 100 elementary schools in China, where 16 million kids under 15 smoke. "Talent comes from hard work--tobacco helps you become talented," reads foot-high, gilt lettering on the side of China's Sichuan Tobacco Hope Elementary.

Coal isn't far behind firearm homicides  or drunk driving in killing people, annually causing 24,000 heart attacks, 217,600 asthma attacks, and dispatching 13,200 Americans, according to the Clean Air Task Force. And the toll is undoubtedly higher in China, where citizens are demonstrating against coal power by the tens of thousands.

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Author Profile

Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

What you can do - more ideas

On Facebook, like "Allies and Friends Fighting NW Coal Exports." On this page I link news (including, soon, this article) and resources for commenting on the various government decisions that are required for coal exports. Other ideas too. I will email to those who don't use Facebook.

Visit Sightline.org, a Seattle-based sustainabilty think tank that does credible research on coal exports, and other sustainabilty topics.

Visit PowerPastCoal.org, and sign petitions for the commenting opportunities.

Visit CoalSwarm.org, a global clearinghouse with info on impacts of coal worldwide. It's on Twitter,too.

Keep flexing your wonderful First Amendment Rights to the press, to petition your government, to assemble, to speak out, and practice your religion. All of these rights can help fight coal.

A Collectable Critique

Hey Drew:
First critique I’ve gotten from an admitted non-reader. Thanks. Interesting and collectable. Had you read the piece and responded to what I wrote instead of what you imagine I wrote, you’d have seen that nowhere did I “slam fossil fuels as dirty and untenable” and that I made the some point you do--that we “can’t go cold turkey on fossil fuels.”

Furthermore

I am always interested to read the "environmentalists" bent on hydro carbons and the consumption there of. Having been involved in companies that provide wind energy, solar energy and yes, even coal and oil and gas derived energies, I find above articles to be rather short sited and even ignorant to the degree that they are often founded on emotion and opinion rather than defendable facts. The technologies that are now available to energy, mining and drilling companies is nothing short of amazing and even cost effective. The argument that should be discussed at the table is exactly as my friend above has stated - how can we apply technology to our existing practices to make extraction, mining and drilling more safe and environmentally sound. The idea of a hydrocarbon free society at this stage of human development is a thing of fantasy and fiction. Where government MUST subsidize wind and to some degree solar, the bad guys (aka miners and drillers) actually build businesses with something called revenue. Additionally, it should be understood by all environmentalists that the Hybrid engine, the tires on the cars, the soles of your shoes and the thread stitching your clothing is a product or by-product of one hydrocarbon or another... not to mention, where we would store all the waist should we go to the land of lollypops and unicorns, where do all the metal products get dumped, the stoves, engines, copper wire and even nails and screws that hold the world together?? There is a solution and as stated, be patient and apply your knowledge to answering the questions, not just asking them.

Furthermore

I am always interested to read the "environmentalists" bent on hydro carbons and the consumption there of. Having been involved in companies that provide wind energy, solar energy and yes, even coal and oil and gas derived energies, I find above articles to be rather short sited and even ignorant to the degree that they are often founded on emotion and opinion rather than defendable facts. The technologies that are now available to energy, mining and drilling companies is nothing short of amazing and even cost effective. The argument that should be discussed at the table is exactly as my friend above has stated - how can we apply technology to our existing practices to make extraction, mining and drilling more safe and environmentally sound. The idea of a hydrocarbon free society at this stage of human development is a thing of fantasy and fiction. Where government MUST subsidize wind and to some degree solar, the bad guys (aka miners and drillers) actually build businesses with something called revenue. Additionally, it should be understood by all environmentalists that the Hybrid engine, the tires on the cars, the soles of your shoes and the thread stitching your clothing is a product or by-product of one hydrocarbon or another... not to mention, where we would store all the waist should we go to the land of lolly pops and unicorns, where do all the metal products get dumped, the stoves, engines, copper wire and even nails and screws that hold the world together?? There is a solution and as stated, be patient and apply your knowledge to solutions, not only questions.

"A Hydrocarbon -free Society" Huh?

Dear Anonymous: Who’s pushing for a “hydrocarbon free society?” As you state (and as I reported) we need coal. So why are you okay with sending so much of our coal to China?

C'mon...

This is a long article you're asking people to read, but I was prepared to wade through and see if there was any good learning to be had. (Plus, we Red Sox fans are captivated by anything with the name "Ted Williams" on it.) Fortunately or unfortunately, I never got past the fourth paragraph, where the author ludicrously blame an advertising slogan for gambling addictions and unethical behavior. By blithley dismissing the free will and sense of personal responsibility we all do or should possess, he undercuts his credibility and makes it pointless to read on. Even those of us with a more progressive mindset understand why conservatives paint these types of liberals as arrogant know-it-alls whose attempts to educate the rest of us reek with condescension. The fact is, slamming fossil fuels as dirty and untenable is a lazy and oversimplified argument. For one thing, we need ALL fuels to power our economy, particularly until technology allows us to use rewnewables as a baseload power. Secondly, NO energy production is completely clean. You think solar panels and wind turbines are made of pixie dust and unicorn tears? No, they're made of metals and chemicals and things that need to be mined and processed and manufactured and transported on fuel-burning trucks and trains. They also require space to generate energy and transmission lines to move that energy to places like the Audobon Society's offices. The world is making great progress on new energy technologies - not only wind and solar and biofuels but, yes, "cleaner" approaches to using coal - but we have to be patient and stop naively demanding the world go cold turkey on fossil fuels today. It's simply not possible. It's like demanding an iPad in 1985 - just wait a few years (or decades) and we'll get there....

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