Global Warming: Coal — It’s Cheap and Dirty


40% of our CO2 emissions…and counting [detritus / Flickr]

If you’re worried about global warming, coal is almost paralyzingly scary. The statistics, lifted from Jeff Goodell and Erik Reece, tell it all.

Coal is responsible for nearly 40% of America’s CO2 emissions. (Here it’s interesting to remember that the U.S. emits 25% of the world’s greenhouse gases). That’s because over 50% of our electricity comes from coal. Over half! And because — joule for joule — coal emits the most carbon of any fossil fuel.

We haven’t built many new coal-fired power plants in the last fifty years, but suddenly now 120+ new plants are in the works. Why? Nuclear power is, well, scary. Oil & gas are running out. Wind, water, and solar can’t yet keep up with our voracious demand. Most importantly, coal is CHEAP. And we have TONS of it (270 billion tons of it, to be exact) within our own borders — so Big Coal is capitalizing on 9/11 and its aftermath.

Price: Coal is cheap partly because we have so much of it, partly because Big Coal is heavily subsidized, but most significantly because many of its real costs (greenhouse gasses, massive air and water pollution, devastating health effects, flooding, deforestation, etc.) aren’t included.

Supply: The U.S. is blessed with over 25% of the world’s recoverable coal. We have so much of it that coal advocates call us the Saudi Arabia of coal. At the moment, we’re mining 100 tons every 2 seconds — primarily in Wyoming and Appalachia — to feed our billion-plus-ton yearly appetite.

So what we have is a politically connected and savvy industry that’s planning to expand. In ways that will be disastrous for global warming. Although existing “scrubbers” can reduce many of coal’s air pollutants, they don’t work for CO2. Greenhouse gases require something with a fun name: gasification and sequestration. Its potential effectiveness is highly debated. Only a handful of plants are already doing gasification (using integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology), but none is sequestering yet. Very few of the new coal-fired power plants will include even the IGCC technology.

Depressed yet? Then don’t look east to China, where coal is providing two thirds of the energy for the country’s incandescent economy…

It’s not clear where to start looking for solutions, but we’re going to talk about it anyway. Because that’s what we do. Please add your voice.

Jeff Goodell

Author, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future

Contributing editor, Rolling Stone

Contributor, New York Times Magazine

Julio Friedmann

Head, Carbon Storage Program, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

David Hamilton

Director, Global Warming and Energy Progam, Sierra Club

Extra Credit Reading
Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, The Price of Climate Change, New York Times, November 5, 2006: “Rain raised food prices, and those prices, in turn, led hungry families to steal in order to feed themselves.”

Tina Vital, The Democrats’ Energy Game Plan, Business Week Online, November 12, 2006: “While some energy subindustries, such as “homegrown” alternative energy, may be given more support by the Democrats than the Republicans, S&P believes the Democrats will be less friendly towards certain key industries that they perceive to have been unduly favored by the Republicans. For example, energy companies are likely to be in for a rougher ride, and may face hearings to investigate price levels.”

S. 342 Climate Stewardship Act of 2005,, February 10, 2005: “A bill to provide for a program of scientific research on abrupt climate change, to accelerate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by establishing a market-driven system of greenhouse gas tradable allowances, to limit greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and reduce dependence upon foreign oil, and ensure benefits to consumers from the trading in such allowances.”

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, Fight Global Warming, PostGlobal, November 7, 2006: “The U.S. does not need to like the Kyoto Treaty. There are other ways to reduce emissions. The U.S. does not need to talk about “global warming.” “Energy independence” is fine for now as long as the new sources of energy are clean. In the end, there will be no energy independence without conservation.”

Simon Romero, 2 Industry Leaders bet on Coal but Split on Cleaner Approach, New York Times, May 28, 2006: “But while sooty smokestacks are no longer a big problem in modern coal-burning power plants, the increase in global warming gases is. A typical 500-megawatt coal-fired electricity plant, supplying enough power to run roughly 500,000 homes, alone produces as much in emissions annually as about 750,000 cars, according to estimates from Royal Dutch Shell.”

Michael Arndt, The New Clean Fuel: Coal Producer Goes Green, Business Week Online, September 26, 2005: “If regulators side with AEP, it could lead other power companies to make the switch. That could boost clean-coal technology from the pilot-project stage, where it has been stuck for more than a decade, to full commercialization. Since these plants wring out pollutants instead of sending them up the chimney, their wider use could reignite demand for high-sulfur coal, which has been in decline since the Clean Air Act of 1970, and thus return jobs to the coal basin in the rural Midwest. Indeed, AEP’s impact may reach all the way to China, which is facing global pressure to clean up its growing fleet of coal-burning generators.”

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