09 Nov 2010: Opinion

After a Strong Counterattack,
Big Coal Makes a Comeback

With an aggressive campaign focused on advertising, lobbying, and political contributions, America’s coal industry has succeeded in beating back a challenge from environmentalists and clean-energy advocates. The dirty truth is that Big Coal is more powerful today than ever.

by jeff goodell

The coal industry — perhaps the least entrepreneurial, most politically-connected business in America — likes to present itself as a hapless collection of hard-working guys just trying to keep the lights on. In the run-up to last week’s election, the industry skillfully played up the idea that it was under siege by out-of-control federal bureaucrats, including a president unsympathetic to the idea that burning more coal is the surest route to a healthy economy. In the weeks before the election, I saw banners in several West Virginia towns that said “Stop the War on Coal” and, my favorite, “Legalize Coal.” Luke Popovich, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, went so far as to accuse the Obama administration of carrying out a “regulatory jihad” against coal.

Of course, the idea that the Obama administration is on a mission to kill coal would strike many energy and environmental activists as something like the inverse of the truth. In their view, the administration has been all
From the point of view of the Earth’s atmosphere, the war on coal has been a spectacular failure.
hat and very little cowboy when it comes to the issues that really matter, like reforming mountaintop removal mining and limiting greenhouse gas pollution.

But the biggest irony is that this so-called “war on coal” has never been much of a fight to begin with. Despite all the talk about a clean-tech revolution, the dirty truth is that Big Coal is more powerful today than ever.

You can see this simply by looking at the numbers. In 1988, NASA climate scientist James Hansen stood before Congress and testified that global warming was not only real, but was already happening. It was a turning point in the scientific and political understanding of the risks of burning coal, and, in a broad sense, it helped spark the beginning of a clean energy revolution. What has happened to our appetite for coal since then? In the U.S., annual consumption has increased by 100 million tons. Globally, the trend is even starker — yearly consumption has increased by about two billion tons, to about 7.2 billion tons. Meanwhile, annual CO2 pollution from coal has increased by more than four billion tons since 1988, to 13 billion tons a year. It’s safe to say that from the point of view of the Earth’s atmosphere, the war on coal has been a spectacular failure.

Another example is in the build-out of new coal plants. In order to break our addiction to coal, we obviously need to stop building new coal plants and begin to retire the old ones. That is not happening — not in the U.S. and not internationally. Globally, there are more than 300 new coal plants in 26 countries that are currently either under construction or on the drawing board. Each of these plants is likely to run for 40 years or so, making the push to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions all the more difficult.

Photo Credit: ACCCE
An industry ad from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity
And the new coal plants aren’t all in China. According to Bruce Nilles, who heads up the Beyond Coal campaign for the Sierra Club, 22 new coal plants have been constructed or are under construction in the U.S. since 2002, with another 53 proposed. Nilles points out that the Sierra Club, as well as other activists, have stopped construction of 145 new coal plants — “that’s opened up a huge market for clean energy,” Nilles says. True enough, but slowing up the march of new coal plants is not the same thing as stopping it. Just days after last week’s election, newly-elected Kansas governor Sam Brownback announced he would revive two coal plant proposals that had been blocked. As for the much-touted “clean coal” plants that capture and bury CO2 pollution, there is still not a single commercial-scale plant in operation anywhere in the world.

But maybe the clearest measure of Big Coal’s success is the rise of climate skepticism, especially in the U.S. Congress. According to one analysis, half the newly elected House Republicans deny the existence of man-made climate change, and 86 percent of them are opposed to climate change legislation. Although the coal industry is hardly the only one that is pushing the notion that global warming is, as West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship puts it, “a hoax” and “a Ponzi scheme,” they are pioneers in the campaign to discredit climate science. The Greening Earth Society, which was largely funded by the coal industry, argued that CO2 pollution is a great boon for civilization because it increases plant productivity.

Indeed, the triumph of coal is deeply connected with an anti-science agenda, and always has been. Over the years, the industry has argued that
The argument that mining and burning coal contributes to energy independence is a false one.
air pollution from coal plants doesn’t cause an increase in heart attacks; that mercury, a potent neurotoxin emitted from coal plants, does not cause neurological damage; that mountaintop removal mining does not hurt the environment; and that burning coal does not heat up the atmosphere. All these arguments fly in the face of science — and, often, in the face of common sense. But it doesn’t matter. Coal is an empire of denial.

The persistence of coal is a subject of much debate among environmentalists and clean energy activists. The simplest answer is that most people don’t know where their electricity comes from and don’t care, as long as their bill doesn’t go up. This ignorance gives coal advocates all kinds of advantages, such as allowing them to get away with the false argument that mining and burning coal contributes to energy independence. (Coal is no substitute for oil — we don’t use coal to power our vehicles, and we don’t use oil to generate electricity.) Another answer is that geology is destiny: The world — the U.S., China, and India especially — has a lot of coal, and so naturally we are going to burn it. Finally, there is a good argument to be made in favor of inertia. Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, Canada, has pointed out that energy systems are not like PCs: Innovation happens over a period of decades, not months.

These answers have merit. But the real reason for the persistence of coal is politics. And I mean that in several ways.

The first and most obvious way that Big Coal gains leverage is simply with money. By any accounting, Big Coal — and by that I mean not just coal mining companies, but also the railroads that haul the coal, as well as the electric utilities and power companies that burn it — exerts a huge influence not only in Washington D.C., but in state and local governments, too. The Southern Company, a large Atlanta-based power company that is one of the largest coal burners in the country and a longtime opponent of global warming legislation, spent about $9 million in federal lobbying fees this year alone — that’s nearly as much as ExxonMobil, a company that is 10 times larger. Peabody Energy, the largest privately-held coal company in the world, spent almost $6 million.

And then there are campaign contributions. As of early October, the mining industry, which is mostly coal, contributed more than $3 million to federal candidates, the great majority of it going to Republicans. The industry backed up its contributions with a major media blitz — the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry front group, spent more than $16 million on ads this year touting the virtues of “clean” coal.

But coal flexes its political muscle in another way, too. Virtually all the big Rust Belt states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, not to mention Kentucky and West Virginia — are coal-heavy states, where the mining and burning of coal not only keeps the lights on, but contributes significant (although
Cleaner ways to generate electricity are on the way, and every coal executive I’ve talked to knows it.
declining) revenues to local economies. These states have a lot of throw-weight in Congress, making it difficult to get enough votes to pass legislation that is seen as tough on coal. To make matters worse, politicians from Big Coal states are constantly compelled to demonstrate their loyalty to the industry, lest their campaign contributions stop and media attacks begin. Witness West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who understands very well the problems coal has wrought on his state, yet who vigorously defended mountaintop removal mining in his Senate campaign and shot a bullet through the cap-and-trade bill in one of his TV ads.

There is also a third way that coal exerts political influence, and that is through the historic connection between coal and progress. Environmentalists do not like to admit it, but we really do owe a large debt of gratitude to the coal industry. Coal was the engine of the Industrial Revolution, and without the power generated from coal, modern life as we know it today would be impossible to imagine. In the past, it really was true that one measure of progress was how much coal you mined and burned.

Of course, that connection is no longer valid today. In fact, the opposite is true: Mining and burning coal is a sign of a world that has not yet made the leap into the 21st century. But a sentimental attachment to coal remains, especially in places like West Virginia (the state flag has a coal miner on it), where coal mining is not just a job, but a way of life. To many people, coal is a symbol of simpler times, before anyone worried about jobs moving to China or the collapse of subprime mortgage loans. The coal industry understands these cultural connections very well and exploits them at every opportunity — the real point of all those wholesome “clean coal” ads that blanketed the airwaves this year is to remind viewers that coal is as American as mom and apple pie. Only a socialist — are you listening, Mr. President? — would be against it.

In the fight against coal, environmentalists and clean energy activists have yet to figure out a way to counter the industry’s overwhelming political advantages. They have made great progress, for example, in highlighting the ravages of mountaintop removal mining, but legislation to curb that destructive practice is unlikely to gain momentum anytime soon. And of course the prospects for legislation that will put a price on CO2 pollution, is, for the foreseeable future, nonexistent. In fact, House Republican leaders have made it clear that one of their top priorities in the new Congress is to strip the federal Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate CO2 as a pollutant.


The Razing of Appalachia:
Mountaintop Removal Mining

The Razing of Appalachia: Mountaintop Removal Revisited
John McQuaid reports on the impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining and the prospects of the Obama administration cracking down on this destructive practice.
“This is a get-real moment,” says Becky Tarbotton, acting director of the Rainforest Action Network. There is talk among environmental activists of public demonstrations and large-scale civil disobedience actions against coal, and much hand-wringing about how to link people who care about the coal fields of Appalachia with people who care about the rapidly melting Arctic. “For us, the message from the election is that politicians clearly didn’t feel the outrage,” Tarbotton says. “We need boots on the ground. We need to build a broad social movement.”

In the long run, of course, the coal industry is doomed. No amount of lobbying or political power can save them from the fact that coal is on the wrong side of the innovation curve — it is a 19th century fuel that has thrown itself into the 21st century with sheer political muscle. Cheaper, cleaner ways to generate electricity are on the way. And every coal industry executive I’ve ever talked to knows that. “This is a short-term game,” the CEO of one coal company told me not long ago. The trouble is, for the health of our economy, as well as the planet, it’s not short enough.

POSTED ON 09 Nov 2010 IN Business & Innovation Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health North America 


Neat investigation on Big Coal's contributions to politicians (through opensecrets, I suppose). But I think you hit the right spot when you said: "The persistence of coal is a subject of much debate among environmentalists and clean energy activists. The simplest answer is that most people don’t know where their electricity comes from and don’t care, as long as their bill doesn’t go up."

As long as Americans don't have a more vested interest in alternative energy, elected politicians will not have to push these platforms. It's a matter of short term cost (energy bills) vs. long-term cost (carbon emissions and their impact on climate).

We addressed this tension on www.poweringanation.org, documenting the voice of local communities in "coal" counties (http://bit.ly/akXjbR ).

Luca Semprini

Posted by Luca Semprini on 09 Nov 2010

Why would you quote Jim Henson on anything. He has a poor record for accuracy.

James Hansen, NASA (so called)scientist, predicted a 0.45-degree Celsius (0.81-degree Fahrenheit) rise in global temperature from 1988 to 1997. But in reality (a place environmental activists rarely visit) the increase was a mere 0.01-degree Celsius.

In 1988 Hansen did an interview with Rob Reiss. Hansen was asked (as they looked out a NY city window) “If what you’re saying about the greenhouse effect is true, is anything going to look different down there in 20 years?”
The answer was “The West Side Highway [which runs along the Hudson River] will be under water."

Well it's over 20 years later and the last time I looked the West Side Highway is not under water or anywhere close.

Posted by Robert G on 10 Nov 2010

Clean Coal? How about cleaning up the COAL ASH that is a result of burning coal? What a concept! We humans sure know how to make a mess of things.....yes, Coal fired power plants do provide electricity...so why don't the coal fired power plants take some of their profits and do the right thing....Clean up Their Mess! I live near Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment in Hookstown, PA....A disaster waiting to happen! An earth and dam Coal ash impoundment that is being elevated in height by Geo-tubes....enough is enough! 18% of our community is zoned industrial already. First Energy Corp. wants more! How much more will it take for a disaster to happen? The citizens of the community have spoken. Go away First Energy....we don't want you as our so called "good neighbor" anymore. You are NO "good neighbor" to us....what "Good" have you brought to our community? Nothing but your by-product...that is it! That is enough!

Posted by Deb on 10 Nov 2010

Thanks for this article and your book, Big Coal.

One statement I would expand on "Coal is an empire of denial" would state: The political culture and economy of the United States is an empire of denial, and corruption.

Science says coal is a solid, a state of matter. It is a resource of matter, a material resource. It is not an "energy resource." Except for us fossilized fools.

Humans have been burning coal for three hundred years. Now we shall have thousands of years of changed climate and poisoned oceans, with ancient ideology (and technology) still intact, and expanding to eastern economies. Pay no attention to direct and "externalized" subsidies for "fuels" by national governments, which are many times larger than for "renewable energy." Mining corporations are in charge of our fate, as you say. Combusting coal by stripping out mountains and prairies is wealth, isn't it? Of profit and loss, it is the loss we can't see (radiative forcing and ocean acidification) that worries me.

Dear West Virginia and Kentucky: Those were my American mountains and ancient forests too.

Posted by James Newberry on 11 Nov 2010

The ad hominem attack and pejorative comments by Robert G. provide no citations for his claims, compared to the recent paper accepted for publication in Reviews of Geophysics (August 2010, 52pp.) by J. Hansen, R. Ruedy, M. Sato, and K. Lo, who update the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) analysis of global surface temperature change, compare alternative analyses, and address questions about perception and reality of global warming, stating "we conclude that there has been no reduction in the global warming trend of 0.15-0.20°C/decade that began in the late 1970s."

[ http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/paper/gistemp2010_draft0803.pdf ]

Posted by Michael P. Totten on 11 Nov 2010

Coal contains: URANIUM, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY, Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine, Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium, Magnesium, Thorium, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine, Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc. There is so much of these elements in coal that cinders and coal smoke are actually valuable ores. We should be able to get all the uranium and thorium we need to fuel nuclear power plants for centuries by using cinders and smoke as ore. Unburned Coal also contains BENZENE, THE CANCER CAUSER. We could get all of our uranium and thorium from coal ashes and cinders. The carbon content of coal ranges from 96% down to 25%, the remainder being rock of various kinds.

If you are an underground coal miner, you may be in violation of the rules for radiation workers. The uranium decay chain includes the radioactive gas RADON, which you are breathing. Radon decays in about a day into polonium, the super-poison.

Chinese industrial grade coal is sometimes stolen by peasants for cooking. The result is that the whole family dies of arsenic poisoning in days, not years because Chinese industrial grade coal contains large amounts of arsenic.

Yes, that ARSENIC is getting into the air you breathe, the water you drink and the soil your food grows in. So are all of those other heavy metal poisons. Your health would be a lot better without coal. Benzene is also found in petroleum. If you have cancer, check for benzene in your past.

for most of the above.
Posted by Asteroid Miner on 11 Nov 2010

Until we remove not just the direct fossil fuel subsidies but the embedded regulatory subsidies (http://wp.me/p145AZ-6R) in the U.S. and worldwide (http://wp.me/p145AZ-aT), we don't have a prayer of getting the coal industry monkey off our backs. We're giving away billions of taxpayer dollars every year to people who are sending those same dollars back to DC to fight any form of legislative progress on climate, so that the gravy train won't stop.

Posted by Carrie La Seur on 12 Nov 2010

"The simplest answer is that most people don’t know where their electricity comes from and don’t care"

So true. We, Navajo residents on Black Mesa where Peabody mines coal contend with asthma, cancer, contamination/depletion of our only water source, and leaking empoundments just so the Southwest - Arizona, Las Vegas & Southern California can have cheap electricity which is generated nearby at Navajo Generating Station, and this power also moves and delivers water from the Colorado River to major metro centers in Arizona. Majority of Black Mesa residents are still without electricity and running water.

"But the real reason for the persistence of coal is politics." True. USOSM is very lenient on Peabody who operates on a temporary permit so it doesn't have to meet stringent regulations!

“We need boots on the ground. We need to build a broad social movement.”
Exactly! We have Navajo and Hopi Indian grassroots environmental groups trying to get their government to transition off fossil fuels to solar. See documentary POWER PATHS.

Posted by EJohnson on 16 Nov 2010

Economics, and thus politics, precludes elimination of coal as a power source until a technology is developed which can produce huge amounts of power as cheaply or more so as coal with less environmental impact. The only known technology which has any hope of doing so is thorium nuclear power. Yet it apparently remains politically incorrect to consider, let alone promote it. Type "thorium" into the e360 search feature and you will see only:
"Your search for thorium returned no features and no digest items."
Tsk, tsk.

Posted by David44 on 21 Nov 2010

Who would ever say "Welcome to West Virginia the Home of the Everlasting Moonscapes"
Our beautiful mountains are being forever destroyed.

Our nations overseerers are at the head of the table allowing these attrocities to happen. Do they care if their children and grandkids ever get to drink fresh water? Water is always there when the politicians need it and never queston to whether it is TOXIC!!!!!

MTR is killing our Appalachian culture and the habitats, human and animal, with the help of corrupt uncaring greedy Coal Companies and our nations Leaderson a Daily Basis

Posted by tori on 03 Dec 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
jeff goodellABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Goodell is an author and contributing editor at Rolling Stone. His latest book, How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate, was published earlier this year. His work has appeared in The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, and Wired. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about electric cars and carbon sequestration.



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