No Such Thing As Clean Coal

By Shawn Dell Joyce
 We are enduring a $45 million dollar advertising campaign touting “clean coal” and the solution to America’s energy crisis. This is an attempt by Big Coal lobbyists (in this case American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity) to “greenwash” Americans into believing a lie that coal can ever be clean.

Don’t believe the hype!

Most of our coal is extracted through mountaintop removal mining which involves clear cutting the forests and scraping away the topsoil, blasting up to 800 feet off the top of the mountain, and gouging out the coal with gigantic earth moving machines. This mechanized process replaces human miners with technology, and causes millions of tons of “overburden” (mountaintops, trees, and topsoil) to be bulldozed into adjacent narrow valleys, and clog streams.  Just obtaining the coal is a dirty, polluting process.

Burning coal is a major contributor to climate change. Coal puts 80% more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning gas according to Greenpeace. Burning coal also spews pollutants like mercury which is highly toxic and poses a ‘global environmental threat to humans and wildlife,’ according to the United Nations. Coal-fired power and heat production are the largest single source of atmospheric mercury emissions. There are no commercially available “clean coal” technologies to prevent mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.
The coal industry’s main strength and selling point is that coal is cheaper than renewable energy like wind, or solar because many of the costs of burning coal are hidden or externalized. These are costs that we will pay as individuals, like asthma in young children from the air pollution caused by burning coal. Climate change is another externalized cost of burning coal that is difficult to quantify. How much does the loss of a mountaintop, or Appalachian culture and community cost?

The coal industry estimates that cleaning up fly ash would cost as much as $5 billion a year. If every coal-fired plant in the U.S. added carbon capture and sequestration technology or implemented other (unproven) “clean coal” technologies, that figure could easily double. We would pay that price through higher energy costs.

Coincidentally, the EPA released a study last week claiming that it will cost Americans $22 billion, or roughly $100 per family each year, to meet the goals of the Climate Bill currently debated in the senate. We will pay either way. The big question is what we will get for our money, a transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy or a temporary band-aid solution courtesy of Big Coal?

 Locally, we still get half our electricity from coal, but we have entrepreneurs like Jim Taylor with promising projects like Taylor Biomass, Walden’s hydroelectric dam, and Montgomery’s mill that still generates hydropower as well. Soon we will have cul-de-sac communities sharing large photovoltaic arrays, and maybe even wind turbines dotting pastures where cows graze. Let’s support and develop local renewable energy sources and keep our energy dollars in the local economy.

 Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning columnist and founder of the Wallkill River School in Montgomery.


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