Climate of Fear XVI.

Coal is an important source of fuel: 38.7 percent of America’s electricity comes from 600 coal-fired generators.[1]

The trouble is that coal is bad for you and other living things. Coal burning for power generation in the United States gives off about 1.575 billion tons of carbon dioxide. That feeds the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Burning coal is worse than burning other fossil fuels. All the gasoline-powered vehicles in the United States give off about a billion tons. Burning natural gas gives off about half the carbon-dioxide as does burning coal.

No one is talking about having passed “peak coal”: there is a lot of coal still in the ground. People concerned about global warming want it to stay there. As the former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu memorably phrased it “there’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us.”

However, the coal industry looked to be in decline for the same reason that gasoline prices have fallen recently. Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has succeeded. Natural gas prices have fallen by 74 percent over the last ten years. Natural gas, emitting half the carbon dioxide as coal, is now price competitive with coal. Thus, a shift from coal to natural gas would achieve a substantial reduction in emissions without harming anyone—except the coal producers of course. The economics certainly tilt in that direction: 150 of the less efficient coal-fired generation plants have shut down already.

For these reasons, it may have looked like an opportune time to push for a reduction in coal-burning. The Obama Administration is pushing hard to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent from the 2005 level by 2030. In June 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a Clean Power Plan to limit coal burning in the United States. Each state would be required to reduce its carbon emissions. The logical thing to do would be to switch to other forms of energy generation ranging from nuclear to natural gas to “renewables” (solar, wind).

The EPA plan has elicited hard push-back from coal-mining states. The efficiency of coal-mining techniques has increased with the introduction of “open cast” mining (knock off the top of a mountain and excavate the coal with machinery). Coal miners will be thrown out of work[2] and coal mine owners will see their investments destroyed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has denounced the president’s “War on Coal.”[3] A dozen states have sued the EPA, claiming that it has exceeded its authority.

One way to smooth the path from coal would be to invest more in research into “clean coal” technology. So far, research has shown the process to be expensive and difficult. An experimental “clean coal” plant in Kemper, Mississippi, cost five billion dollars. However, it could both pacify the coal interest and find an international market.

The industrialization of countries like India and China are powered by coal. An estimated 82 percent of global coal reserves are still in the ground. China, which recently promised to reach peak carbon-burning by 2029, plans to build 363 new coal-fired plants before then. India is planning to build more than 450 coal-fired generating plants in years to come. The carbon dioxide emissions from these plants will overwhelm any reductions in the United States. Finding a way to “clean coal” might be one way to avert disaster.

[1] “The end of coal?” The Week, 27 March 2015, p. 11.

[2] Although employment in coal mining in Kentucky has fallen from 38,000 in 1983 to 17,000 in 2012.

[3] Bearing mind the importance of both tobacco and coal for the state’s economy, maybe they could find a new slogan for Kentucky license plates: “Kentucky is for Respirators.”

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