Coal Comfort: The EPA hates the carbon-heavy fuel, but it’s here to stay.
August 7, 2012
About one train per hour. That’s the target loading rate for the massive silos, conveyors, and hoppers at the North Antelope Rochelle Mine in Wyoming, the most productive coal mine in the world. And on a cool, nearly windless day in late March, Scott Durgin, a regional vice president for Peabody Energy, was happy. Standing in the mine’s dispatch office, Durgin pointed to a flat-panel display showing a list of trains that had recently passed through. It was exactly 12 noon, according to the clock on the wall, and since midnight, the mine had loaded 11 trains, each carrying about 16,000 tons of coal. I asked Durgin how long Peabody could continue mining in the region. Easily for another five decades, he replied: “There’s no end to the coal here.”
The scale and productivity of the mine are difficult to imagine. It produces about three tons of coal per second. But despite its staggering output, the North Antelope Rochelle Mine—along with the other 1,300 coal mines operating in the U.S.—is being threatened by the Obama administration. On March 27, just two days before my visit to the mine, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal that would, if enacted, outlaw the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States. The EPA’s motives are clear: it believes that these plants, by emitting carbon dioxide in profusion, contribute to global warming.
There’s no denying that coal has earned its reputation as a relatively dirty fuel. But those concerned about CO2 emissions and climate change should realize that the administration’s attack on coal is little more than a token gesture. The rest of the world will continue to burn coal, and lots of it. Reducing the domestic use of coal may force Americans to pay higher prices for electricity, but it will have nearly no effect on global emissions.
Coal has been an essential fuel for electricity production ever since 1882, when Thomas Edison used it in the first central power plant, at 255–57 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. Edison’s technological breakthroughs at Pearl Street—the list includes the incandescent bulb, the safety fuse, the light socket, the generator, and insulated wiring—led to a tsunami of electrification that continues to this day. By 1890, just eight years after Edison began the revolution, there were 1,000 central power stations in the United States, and new ones were being added at a frenzied pace. All of them burned coal.
Of course, Edison wasn’t the first to exploit coal. The first instance of coal use probably occurred in China some 3,000 years ago. But coal became far more controversial during the Industrial Revolution, when its use in factories made some cities nearly uninhabitable. On one particularly nasty day in London in 1812, a combination of coal smoke and fog became so dense that, according to one report, “for the greater part of the day it was impossible to read or write at a window without artificial light. Persons in the streets could scarcely be seen in the forenoon at two yards distance.” Today, the same problem is plaguing China. The New York Times reports that in Datong, known as the City of Coal, the air pollution on some winter days is so bad that “even during the daytime, people drive with their lights on.”
Air pollution is only part of the coal industry’s environmental and human toll. The industry damages the surface of the earth through strip mines, mountaintop removal, and ash ponds at power plants. In addition, thousands of workers die each year in the world’s coal mines—about 2,000 last year in China alone.
But the media and policymakers are more focused on the amount of carbon dioxide that coal-fired power plants emit. In a 2009 opinion piece for the Guardian, climate scientist James Hansen declared coal “the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet,” adding, for good measure, that “the trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.” Powerful environmental groups like the Sierra Club—which, by the way, is getting $50 million from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to help fund its “beyond coal” campaign—are pushing for a total ban on coal-fired electricity generation in the United States.
The EPA’s proposed rule banning new coal-fired electricity generation results directly from the fear of climate change. Pointing out that greenhouse gases “endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations,” the rule would cap the amount of CO2 that new fossil-fueled electricity generation units can emit, at 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour. That would rule out coal-fired units, which emit about 1,800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. (Natural gas–fired units emit about 800 pounds per megawatt-hour.) The EPA claims that it has the authority to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act and therefore doesn’t need congressional approval to impose the ban. The rule will probably be enacted during the next few months, after the agency collects comments from the public, though subsequent litigation and political fights are certain.
But even if the EPA and the Obama administration succeed in prohibiting new coal-fired electricity generation in the United States, they will leaveglobal coal demand and CO2 emissions almost unchanged. Over the past decade or so, American coal consumption fell by 5 percent, but global coal consumption soared, growing by about the same amount as the growth in oil, natural gas, and nuclear combined. Coal now fuels about 40 percent of global electricity production. Coal’s dominance helps explain why global CO2 emissions rose by 28.5 percent between 2001 and 2010, even as American CO2 emissions fell by 1.7 percent. Over the past decade, even if American emissions had dropped to zero, global emissions would still have increased.
And coal consumption will keep rising as electricity consumption rises. Between 1990 and 2010, global electricity production increased by about 450 terawatt-hours—roughly the amount of electricity that Brazil consumes—per year. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects electricity use to keep growing by about one Brazil per year through 2035. Given this surging electricity demand, it’s no surprise that between 2001 and 2010, global coal consumption rose by 47 percent, or the equivalent of about 23 million barrels of oil per day. During the same period, daily consumption of petroleum grew by 10 million barrels, while natural-gas consumption grew by the equivalent of 12.9 million barrels of oil per day and nuclear-energy consumption grew by the equivalent of 510,000 barrels per day…