Coal Tattoo

Jeff Goodell: ‘Coal more powerful today than ever’

My buddy Jeff Goodell, author of the great book “Big Coal,” has a fascinating opinion piece out this week on Yale’s Environment 360 Web site.

Headlined “After a strong counterattack, Big Coal makes a comeback,” the piece takes a long view on the impact of this month’s midterm elections on the future of the coal industry, coalfield communities and our planet.

The nut graph? It’s right there at the top:

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.

But the piece covers a lot of ground, and is worth a read. I’ll try to hit a few high points here, though.

Is there really a war on coal, and if so, who is winning?

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.

What about the industry’s push to deny climate change is real, to ignore the problem?

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 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.

But can’t coal make us energy independent?

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.)

Then there’s the political money and influence:

In the fight against coal, environmentalists and clean energy activists have yet to figure out a way 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.

So where’s this all heading?

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.