There is a lot of coal smoke emanating from the op-ed pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel lately, which suggests that the coal lobby in Wisconsin is getting nervous. As the tide turns gradually away from coal as an energy source, at least in the United States and Western Europe (coal now accounts for 38% of U.S. electric power, down from over 50% a few years ago), and as the Obama administration and the EPA get more serious about regulating coal pollution, heavily coal-dependent Wisconsin and the industries coal supports in the state can see, even through the smoke, the writing on the wall.

The Allaint Energy coal power plant in Sheboyg...

The Alliant Energy coal power plant in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, USA. (Photo credit: Royalbroil CC, Some rights reserved via Wikipedia. Click photo for copyright information.)

Thus the frantic pro-coal writing on the walls of local media. The latest Journal Sentinel op-ed in favor of coal energy comes courtesy of a partner at the Madison office of the law firm Foley & Lardner, a large firm known for its corporate lobbying in Washington, D.C.

In the op-ed, Brian H. Potts states that the new EPA-proposed rule requiring all new coal plants to be equipped with “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) technology is bad for Wisconsin because– what if the price of natural gas goes way up and the state won’t build more nuclear plants and renewable energy is not a reliable option and because of the EPA we have to build these really expensive new CCS coal plants which will cause us all to pay “much higher electric costs”? It’s enough to make one invest in a steam boiler and a coal mine.

To make Wisconsin’s energy situation even more dire, Potts could have pointed out that what makes natural gas so cheap these days is, in part, hydraulic fracturing, a way of extracting hard-to-reach gas using a lot of Wisconsin sand, water and toxic chemicals. Should this process ever be properly regulated or, God forbid, banned, we may be forced to use less natural gas and build very expensive coal plants and pay really, really high electric costs for our new “clean coal” power. And buy wood stoves. If CCS actually works. But one study suggests CCS isn’t safe.

About 60% of Wisconsin’s electric power is coal-generated at the moment, and we spend 5% less on average for energy costs compared to other cold weather states, according to the Energy Information Administration. Of course, we do pay for our coal-dependence, one way or another. In fact, we already pay a very high price for coal energy. How high? The Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment published in 2011 an extensive study called the “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal.” The report calculates that

“Accounting for the many external costs over the life cycle for coal-derived electricity conservatively doubles to triples the price of coal per kWh of electricity generated.”

We also pay for coal energy with our poor health and, sometimes, our lives. Here’s the American Lung Association’s “Toxic Air Report” documenting what coal is doing to our air and our bodies. And for a look into what coal is doing to China’s air and people, see this graphic CBS report.  And for the first time the air we breathe has been determined to be one of the leading causes of cancer.

Actually, the best thing for our environment would be to start paying upfront the true, high cost of coal, for this would encourage serious conservation, the most reliable and least damaging way of cleaning our air. The true cost would also reflect the egregious destruction of strip mining. And it would make wind and solar power much more competitive and attractive.

As for clean energy not being “reliable”, the use of improved batteries to store solar panel energy for homes and experiments by utilities in Arizona and California suggest that there is a reliable future for solar electricity, at least in sunnier climes. Wisconsin may well require a combination of conservation, solar, wind, biomass and hydroelectric, on both small and large scales. But what is certain is that coal (and nuclear) must go. (As for natural gas, eventually the world is going to use it all up or decide that getting out what’s left in the ground is not ecologically worth it.) As climate change becomes more severe, the only future on earth worth living is a coal-less one.

For a breath of fresh energy air, and to help clear the smog of doubt a little, I’d recommend RENEW Wisconsin.

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