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.
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?
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.