Friday afternoon rebuttal #3

Yet another pro-coal opinion piece has appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That makes four, by my count, in a matter of weeks. Any anti-coal points of view? Not that I’ve seen.

The latest piece is by the president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy, a group of corporations involved in the mining, transportation or burning of coal. Two of the corporate members listed are Milwaukee-area mining equipment manufacturers Caterpillar and Joy Global; a significant portion of their revenue comes from supplying machines for coal mining corporations.

El Cerrejón Mine, Colombia
El Cerrejón Mine, Colombia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given that the new EPA proposal to limit greenhouse gases produced by coal-burning power plants is an attempt to make coal cleaner, one would think that the so-called American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy would be all for anything that makes coal energy cleaner. But this is not the case. The ACCCE is worried that coal can’t meet the clean standards for existing plants to be soon set by the EPA, thereby creating what it calls a “de facto ban” on burning coal. Is this because coal is an inherently dirty fuel that is very difficult to clean? No. It is because, according to the ACCCE, the EPA regulations are likely to be, science being science, too strict for the coal industries’ liking.

Besides, all this ganging up on coal is not worth it says the ACCCE because U.S. coal-burning power plants don’t contribute all that much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere:

“An analysis of the EPA’s own data shows that closing down our nation’s entire coal fleet would reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases by just 3%.”

If burning coal for power generation is responsible for about 43% of global CO2 emissions, and the U.S. share of global CO2 emissions is around 19%, and burning coal produces 35% of U.S. emissions, we might get (someone check my math) close to the 3% global total for U.S. coal power plants cited by ACCCE. But— this total does not include the CO2 emissions from coal that arise from coal mining (the release of methane), coal burned in industrial processes, and the CO2 emissions produced in the transportation of coal to power plants, often from long distances. For example, the EPA calculates that U.S. coal mining adds between 8 and 10 percent of the total methane (a potent global warming gas) now released into the world’s atmosphere.

But keep in mind that CO2 is just one of many consequences of using coal as a source of energy. The direct destruction of land and water that is mining (especially strip mining) and the indirect harm to human health and the national economy are considerable. Coal as a source of power is, indeed, fading away, employing fewer and fewer people and accounting for a smaller and smaller percentage of our power. Whatever the EPA or the states or American businesses and citizens can do to reduce coal mining and burning is ultimately good for all of us. Rather than holding onto (and wasting money on) a dirty and doomed fuel, our corporations ought to be working to transition away from coal. Calling coal “clean” does not make it so.