The burden on the atmosphere is prodigious. Every ton of coal burned puts 2.86 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. How can one ton create almost three times as much in emissions? Because each carbon atom in coal joins with two oxygen atoms when coal is burned.
Some more statistics (with the proviso that these are constantly changing):
A typical (500-megawatt) coal plant burns 1.4 million tons of coal each year. (That's enough to power just over a quarter-million homes.) As of the beginning of June 2012, there were 1,169 coal-fired electricity generators in the United States, many of them underutilized, older and dirtier than average. As of September, the U.S. had burned 616.8 million tons of coal to generate electricity in 2012. The total for 2011 was 935 million tons. That figure has been headed down since 2007. At its peak, coal was generating 57 percent of the nation's electricity; in 2011, the figure was 42 percent.
That's come about for a variety of reasons. New regulations have had some small impact, making a few of the oldest, dirtiest plants uneconomic to retrofit. But, in fact, when finalized, the Mercury and Toxic Air Standards rule was less restrictive than had been expected and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule was vacated entirely. So those attacks about the onerousness of regulations were bogus.
A far greater role has been played by cheap natural gas pried from shale formations by the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing. In April, for the first time since the Energy Information Administration began keeping records, natural gas and coal each contributed 32 percent of the nation's electricity. There's more to come in this arena.
When it comes to new coal-fired power plants, the New Source Performance Standard issued by the Environmental Protection Agency would be a big factor if the price of natural gas weren't so low. This will limit CO2 emissions from new power plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. Right now, the average coal-fired plant emits 1,800 pounds per Mwh. Modern natural-gas plants can meet that standard. Without an economically viable carbon, capture and storage technology, however, even the most modern coal plants are out of the question. And while that CCS technology is being experimented on, it's unproven. But even without the rule, coal can't compete with natural gas.
Thus, in February, CEO Nick Akins of American Electric Power said, "there will not be any new coal plants built, with the current price of gas and the forecast for the future for gas."
Moreover, natural gas prices and environmental advocates are pushing existing plants to close down, too, with 125 shuttered in the past three years. And, as David Roberts of Grist wrote recently, the Brattle Group believes that twice as many coal-fired generators as expected will retire or announce their retirement over the next four years. That's even though an EPA Performance Standard for existing plants has not yet been issued. The Union of Concerned Scientists has concluded that there are 353 more of the dirtiest coal plants that should be retired in the next four years.
All that sounds good. No new coal-fired generators. More closures of existing coal plants. Lowered CO2 emissions.
But giants like Peabody and Arch Coal are planning increases in exports to China and elsewhere, as much as 144 million tons shipped from Northwest ports alone. If that occurred, combined with shipping from other ports, it would mean a doubling of the 107 million tons shipped in 2011. (The record was 113 million tons in 1981.) Given that 59 countries are planning to build some 1,200 new coal-fired generating plants, most of them in China and India, where environmental regulations are far weaker than in the United States, those exports can be expected to soar.
While the United States can regulate new and existing coal-fired plants and lower its own emissions by switching to natural gas (temporarily as renewables expand), exporting the coal that would have fueled those American power plants pumps the same amount of CO2 (and far higher amounts of other pollutants) into the air. Climate change observes no national boundaries.
Exporting coal means continuing to strip it and mine it. It means mountain-top removal, stream pollution, cave-ins and explosions. It means wrecking the health of not just the miners but also their families:
Ken Ward Jr. has written:
“A growing body of studies have found significant associations between coal-mining areas and a variety of chronic disease problems for adults, after controlling for other disease risk factors,” said Michael Hendryx, a West Virginia University professor who has co-written more than twenty such studies. And coal remains a dangerous business for the workers who do the mining. Not only do they face the daily risk of explosions and roof falls, but the deadly black lung disease—meant to be eradicated by a 1969 federal law—is on the rise again, as miners work longer hours in conditions made dustier by more aggressive coal-cutting machines.
My grandfather, who worked underground for 12 years until he became a United Mine Workers organizer in 1927, died of black lung less than two years after his near-decade-long fight to be diagnosed. I spent his last five months with him. It's a nasty way to go.
But not having a job, and coal-mining jobs pay well, can be nasty, too.
That's why everyone who cares about this issue should read in its entirety Matt Wasson's excellent wide-ranging essay (written at Daily Kos under the moniker Lazyhorse). It's not only an examination of the supposed "war on coal" of the recent campaign (complete with maps of how the GOP captured coal-country votes in 2012), it's a prescription for the future. Wasson is director of programs at Appalachian Voices and coordinator of the campaign to stop mountain-top removal, ilovemountains.org. His environmental commitment does not outshine his compassion and connection to the coal-mining families of the region. Let me quote him at length, again urging everyone to read the whole essay:
Another reason that the organizing of right-wing groups like AFP has gone largely uncontested in coal country is a simple matter of resources. There are groups like Kentuckians For The Commonwealth that are doing extraordinarily effective organizing in regions where coal is mined, but when a group like AFP comes in with an $11 million ad campaign and bottomless pockets for on-the-ground organizing, we're in the position of bringing a knife to a nuclear showdown.
Environmental and community advocates will never match the resources of the powerful industries they challenge, but the problem is particularly acute in places like Appalachia where the big climate funders have largely turned a blind eye to the region. They have so far chosen not to support efforts to stop mountaintop removal and other egregious mining techniques, even though those are the issues that have proven to be effective in swaying public opinion and opening minds. In Appalachia, for instance, mountaintop removal and drinking water pollution are potent "gateway issues" that have inspired many residents to question the honesty and benevolence of the coal industry and their political allies in general.
But by far the most effective way to challenge the power of the "agents of climate inaction" in coal country is to enact policies to diversify the economy and build local support for clean energy industries. While a lot of resources have rightly been expended toward building the energy efficiency and renewable energy industries across the country, climate funders and big environmental groups have provided little if any support for economic initiatives to diversify the economy specifically in coal-dependent regions.
To make matters worse, local politicians in the pocket of the coal industry have shown little initiative in seeking to attract clean energy investments to the region, which puts coal mining regions at an even greater disadvantage.
The best thing that "all you climate people" can do to help break polluting industries' grip on the tail that's been wagging the dog of our national energy debate is to support policies to bring clean energy investments to coal-mining communities. Coal use is on the decline, but the political and economic power of the industry in the region where coal is mined has not waned—and won't, until other industries replace it.
That's not just good strategy, but it's also the right thing to do. The communities that have supplied the brunt of America's energy needs since the industrial revolution and powered our rise to the greatest economy on Earth should not be tossed aside as we move toward a future powered by clean and renewable energy—they should be part of it. And the more we make them a part of that future, the faster we'll get there.
As productivity has risen over the past few decades, coal company employment has been falling (except for a recent uptick). While the "war on coal" has been called the culprit by the propagandists, coal companies have been the real killer of coal-related jobs.
Over the generations, coal communities have been devastated by an extractive economy in which workers have risked their lives and sacrificed their health to keep the juice flowing to our refrigerators and televisions. It's a matter of environmental justice to help pull these communities out of a dirty 19th Century extractive economy into a cleaner 21st Century path.
We progressives, environmental advocates or not, don't like the way a lot of people in western Virginia, West Virginia, southern Illinois, Kentucky and Wyoming voted in this election. There are, of course, other reasons than economics for their choices. But finding answers to their economic issues, helping them—really helping them—create sustainable, renewable communities amid the carnage coal has wrought ought to be as high on our list as stopping that carnage.
There are many ways that can be done. The nation already has invested billions of dollars to spur homeowners and commercial operations to install renewable energy. As a nation we spend billions to deal with the diseases caused by burning coal. Given the urgency of getting us off coal, there is no reason billions can't be spent to ease the lives of coal workers and their families as we make this crucial transition.
Delay is denial.