DIGGING OURSELVES INTO A HOLE:
Leave coal or it will bury us
Coal is nearly synonymous with the Industrial Age—forging its steel and powering its steamships and trains. It helped unleash tremendous forces that have virtually shaped modern life. We may have transitioned from that sooty era, yet more "Industrial Age Coal" than ever burns unnoticed in the background of our daily lives. In the twentieth century, coal’s primary use shifted to creating electricity, where it still reigns as king—now providing 45% of our nation's electricity, in Utah 58%. Nearly half our nation's train cars haul coal from mines to faraway coal fire plants. Eighteen pounds are burned daily per American—that's over 3 tons annually—lighting up our streets, homes, stores and factories, and running our appliances, computers and AC's.
OK, so that's a hell of a lot of coal. But since it steadily supplies us with cheap electricity, why should we care? Because coal is actually hurling us into a slow-motion train wreck. Coal's destructiveness is accumulating over time—but it can no longer be overlooked. Therefore, we must figuratively (perhaps even literally) blockade coal in its tracks.
Our very lives depend on this heroism for a host of reasons. Above all else, it is destroying our climate. But it is also burdening our nation with health costs and with pollution of our waterways and political system. And it is starting to run out. Given all of coal's ills, its depletion might seem like something to celebrate, but only we act quickly to phase it out. Depletion might be the most overlooked of coal's issues, since so many believe that coal is an abundant domestic fuel for years to come. The truth about its supply must be made known and understood, so we can take effective action.
SCARCITY OR ABUNDANCE?
America is nicknamed the "Saudi Arabia of coal," for our vast reserves. Coal's promoters say there's still over 200 years' worth at current consumption rates. Coal still seems plentiful. Long trainloads of coal are a common sight across our land. Our lights predictably turn on when we flip the switch.
However, much that remains is too dirty to burn, too remote, too dangerous to mine, or is buried under places like towns or national parks. Production in most coal producing states peaked over a decade ago, and is declining substantially. Utah' production is no exception—about 30% lower than a decade ago. Underground mines nationwide are getting deeper and more dangerous. For example, the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine disaster entombed six miners 1800 feet underground and killed three rescue workers. Most Utah mines operate at the limits of depth, at 1600–2000 feet.
A 2009 USGS report forecasts ten more years of steady production in Appalachia—yet mining companies have already leveled 500 mountains, polluted many waterways and devastated many communities to get the remaining coal. Statistics are one-dimensional, devoid of the living realm. We are entering the era of "extreme energy" in which operators go to great lengths to extract remaining fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Americans blithely turn up their air conditioners.
"250 YEARS" DEBUNKED
The U.S. now depends on just three states for most of its coal supply—Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky. West Virginia and Kentucky peaked years ago and are being decimated for what remains. Enormous surface mines—the easiest of easy coal—in Wyoming's Powder River Basin (PRB) now supply 40% for the nation. Just how big are these mines? Take this interactive quiz to find out.
Does Wyoming have 250 years of coal? In about a decade, the PRB mines will face significant challenges, as operators remove more overburden to chase deeper coal seams. Even now, mines are becoming riskier. A 2008 USGS study revealed that in the largest beds, less than 6% is profitable (even at today’s higher prices)—just half of 2002 estimates.
The total energy content of U.S. coal actually peaked about a decade ago, even though the total volume is still increasing. We've burned up most of the best stuff. So America digs, transports, and burns more coal to get the same amount of energy.
So America isn't the Saudi Arabia of coal, it turns out.
Much of coal's defense has been its low price. Energy planning scenarios with higher coal prices would show that new coal power plants and clean coal technologies make no economic sense, while efficiencies and renewable energy do. And none of this is even considering coal's unseen costs…
THE TRUE COST OF COAL
Coal is among our cheapest sources of electricity, but also our dirtiest and most destructive. It is cheapest only because its terrible environmental and societal costs are externalized, carried by society. All told, coal costs our nation at least $500 billion annually, according to a recent study, "Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal," by Paul Epstein at the Harvard Medical School.
The report says this would add eighteen cents per kilowatt-hour—making coal shockingly expensive.
The annual U.S. health toll from power plant particulates averages over 23,000 premature deaths, 38,000 nonfatal heart attacks and 550,000 asthma attacks. Coal plants emit the majority of air-born mercury; its contamination is seeping into nearly every habitat in America and getting into the fish we eat. Coal plants also disperse radioactivity – more fissile material than used by all our nation's nuclear power reactors.
Coal ash is our second-largest volume of toxic waste; most is stored on-site at power plants. This dirty secret's hazards are becoming more known. Coal ash is loaded with heavy metals—toxic elements that never decompose—so it is unclear how to safely contain this voluminous waste over generations (or even eons, like nuclear waste)? Poorly regulated, it is leaching out and poisoning our water supplies. At 800 pounds annually per American, what are we to do with it all? Let's get creative…a lot of it is getting mixed into road surfaces, soil additives, paint, wallboard, carpeting and even bowling balls.
Coal's filthiness has sullied our political system with millions of dollars for lobbying and campaign contributions. We have the best politicians that coal money can buy—those blocking climate legislation and coal regulation, while promoting the "clean coal" myth and bestowing King Coal with lavish subsidies.
The coal industry touts the importance of jobs, jobs, jobs, but nowadays the typical coal miner is a machine, not a man. In the last thirty years, automation has cut mining jobs in half. In Utah, the combined coal mining and plant jobs currently total about 3000. Nationally, there are now more wind and solar jobs (200,000) than all coal-related jobs (174,000).
Carbon-loaded coal accounts for nearly 40% of CO2 emissions in the U.S.—more than any other source. Leading climatologist James Hansen says transitioning from coal by 2030 is paramount—more urgent than stopping oil or gas—to prevent runaway climate destabilization. Hansen says this "is 80% of the solution to the global warming crisis." The notion that the CO2 could be captured and stored underground, is a pipedream that will never work.
Coal depletion might seem to solve climate change, but this is a dangerous assumption. Devastating storms, droughts and floods are already happening—indicating that we've underestimated the powerful effects of CO2 buildup in our atmosphere.
Among all the reasons to leave coal—depletion and climate issues are especially double-trouble. Both are pressing us to mobilize a transition from coal as quickly as possible. Leslie Glustrom, cofounder of Clean Energy Action in Colorado and leading expert on coal depletion calls this the “sweet imperative.” She asserts that, “The planning horizon for moving beyond coal might be as short as 20 years, depending on the resolution of numerous issues facing further mine expansions.” She says, “We need to ship electrons around the country, not coal.” We need to create electricity where the wind blows and the sun shines, and send the power where it is needed. Transitioning will take time, which is why we need to start now.
The "250 years of coal" fairy tale must be buried if we are to keep our lights on. As Wyoming’s super-easy coal now supplies much of the country, the U.S. is surging on a sort of Halloween candy binge. But we all remember that sick, crashed feeling afterwards. Coal constraints are not solvable by digging faster and deeper. We will just end up in a bigger hole.