In this the year of our collective disappointment on federal support for climate, energy, public health—progress—let us relish in one certainty: a surge in year-end searches about holidays and coal. From the warm and cozy outposts of our nation’s leaders’ homes, hiding from the storm of public scorn, one can imagine little queries being soon sent into the night:
- “is receiving coal a compliment?”
- “if coal is clean why is stocking dirty?”
- “does lump of coal mean democratic process is preferred?”
And so on.
But here’s the thing. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy released an infographic titled “6 Things You May Not Know About Coal.” Unfortunately, this infographic is a tour-de-force in obfuscating truth through diversions and distractions.
And me? I don’t want those late-night searches leading to any wrong conclusions.
So below, we’re adding context to DOE’s coal trivia to help ensure these lumpy forms of year-end feedback are appropriately received.
1. Menacing piles is right—our nation is being smothered in coal ash. One side effect of using all those coal reserves? Generating even more of the toxic coal ash that gets left behind. It turns out that when we burn coal, it doesn’t all go up in polluting smoke. Indeed, coal ash comprises one of the nation’s largest industrial waste streams, totaling more than 100 million tons last year.
This waste is an awful gift that keeps on giving, from its toxic pollutants leaching into drinking water, to multiple horrors of coal ash ponds bursting forth and decimating unsuspecting communities and waterways below.
But protections against these threats? Keep dreaming. This fall, the Trump administration moved to reconsider a regulation that would demand basic protections against these ticking time bombs.
2. If your state has traditionally been a coal-based economy, prepare for your budget to take a tumble in a front-load washer. There is an undeniable and unrelenting transition taking place in the nation’s power sector. And a transition, by its very nature, means moving away from one thing and toward another. For states that have long provided our nation with the fuel required to power our energy needs, this transition is hard. But the administration’s continued denial about what’s really happening means that these states aren’t planning for the future—they’re desperately clinging to a rapidly disappearing past.
Unfortunately, the end result of all those rosy distractions from the Trump administration is states forgoing actual long-term opportunities that could help them stay afloat.
3. The nation’s coal cart isn’t serenely parked—it’s careening headlong towards a crash. What’s remarkable about coal’s contribution to electricity generation is not that it represents nearly a third of our supply—it’s that as recently as 2006, it made up more than half. Driving this precipitous fall is a confluence of factors, foremost among them an abundance of cheap natural gas, as well as limited load growth, and more recently, sky-rocketing rates of deployment of renewable resources like wind and solar.
4. Potato, potahto; one man’s beneficial byproduct, another man’s toxic waste site. Our nation is awash in the harmful coal mine outflow known as acid mine drainage—estimates suggest that in Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone, 10,000 miles of streams are affected—as well as a seemingly endless supply of coal ash (see above). Researching ways to clean up these environmental and public health catastrophes is good; calling them opportunities—and implying value in creating ever more—is a bad joke.
Let’s clean up what we’ve already spoiled, not set off to make an even bigger mess.
5. Clean coal? Beautiful, clean coal? Close your eyes, click your heels, and repeat after me [loudly, so EPA Administrator Pruitt can hear from his soundproof booth]: “There’s no such thing as clean coal. There’s no such thing as clean coal. There’s no such thing as clean coal.”
Poof! Welcome back to the sweet, sweet land of reality. Facts are hard, and sometimes even inconvenient, but they do have the distinct benefit of being true. So long as we’re still burning coal, yes, let’s do it as cleanly and efficiently as possible—we all benefit from that. But let’s not kid ourselves. Coal can be cleaner, but it’s not clean, and all the while the disproportionate burden of pollution from mining and burning coal too often falls on low-income and minority communities.
6. If we go all-in on “clean coal,” the only thing still going up is our pollution footprint. To forestall the worst of climate impacts, it’ll take a wholesale shift in our economy, including remaking our power sector to reach near-zero carbon. Given the urgent need to cut emissions, let’s get going with renewables today, which can go a long way toward getting the job done right here and right now—from stimulating the economy, to creating new jobs, to improving public health.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology—which aims to capture and store CO2 from burning coal—could eventually play a larger role if we can overcome the significant technological and cost challenges it currently faces. But remember: while CCS can make coal cleaner, it can’t alone take care of all the other lifecycle pollution baggage coal’s got.
And thus take note, all you dirty-stocking coal queriers out there: others can try to spin it all they want, but the hard truth for you is that coal you got? It’s no compliment. So take your lumps, and then let’s look ahead to smoother times next year: one driven by facts, pointing toward truths, and reckoning with the real challenges and real opportunities ahead.