Somehow we missed it when New York City Mayor and well known wealthy person, Michael Bloomberg, hammered the U.S. coal industry at the national Energy Innovation Summit just a couple of weeks ago, but rest assured that the coal industry took notice and rose to the defense of a “clean coal” future.
At the summit, hosted by the federal advanced energy research agency ARPA-E, Bloomberg stated that “coal is a dead man walking,” and renewed his support for transitioning the U.S. out of coal dependency and into a more sustainable energy future. In response, leading coal producer Peabody Energy and the World Coal Association fired off a letter to Mayor Bloomberg defending a “clean coal” future, but if you take a look at the points they raise it’s pretty clear that at most, they have no argument and at least, they’ve done the corporate social responsibility movement a big favor by raising the bar for green-aspiring companies.
A letter from the U.S. coal industry to Michael Bloomberg
The letter is available at Peabody Energy’s website and it’s worth a read in full, but the main points are pretty straightforward. Looking at the bright side, the letter outlines:
“…coal’s enormous ‘beneath the surface’ progress in recent years. These progress points include coal’s unmatched growth, technology advancements, emissions reductions, and role in powering the best economies, keeping electricity rates low and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of energy poverty around the world.”
Point by point, the letter details the importance of coal in the current energy landscape domestically and globally, its “track record of reliability and affordability,” the progress that’s been made to reduce “key emissions” in the U.S., and its role in helping “the world’s 3.6 billion people who lack access to proper energy.”
The real problem with “clean” coal
That’s all well and good, but the letter fails to reference that the true cost of coal is largely externalized. Emissions from coal-fired power plants still contribute to significant, avoidable public health costs in the U.S. as well as startling public health crises in China and other regions that lack a sophisticated regulatory structure. Reducing those emissions to a safe level will require costly new controls that undermine Peabody’s argument for the affordability of coal compared to other energy resources.
That’s becoming abundantly clear in the U.S. as new emissions regulations kick in. Coal saw a rapid rise in the U.S. in the 20th century along with other fossil fuels, but the picture for domestic consumption in the 21st century has been quite gloomy. The Peabody letter paints a brave face on things by noting that coal’s market share for electricity production in the U.S. has increased since last spring, but the big picture is that coal power plants are being shuttered or converted to burn biomass or natural gas due to cost and environmental concerns.
Whether or not coal can remain competitive under a low-emissions scenario is a moot point, though. The bottom line for U.S coal production is that “easy” coal is being tapped out, leaving the industry with higher expenses for underground mining, or, as is the case in Appalachia, literally blowing up hundreds of pristine mountains and burying miles of natural streams under the debris to get at shallow seams of coal. Neither scenario is sustainable.
Setting a higher bar for CSR
In any case, Peabody has done the CSR movement a huge favor by drawing attention to Bloomberg’s campaign against coal-fired power plants. It’s a doozy, too. He launched it in July 2011, with a commitment of $50 million through Bloomberg Philanthropies, partnering up with a pre-existing Sierra Club campaign. The mission is to help communities and cities advocate locally against out-of-date coal plants, with the eventual goal of retiring about one-third of the aging coal fired power plants in the U.S.
Last fall, Bloomberg’s media company followed up with a lengthy editorial on coal timed for the peak of the presidential election season, in the Bloomberg Views section of Bloomberg.com.
The editorial noted that neither of the major candidates “acknowledges the difficult economic reality coal now faces, or mentions that this form of power still produces intolerable amounts of pollution and greenhouse gases.”
Basically, the editorial makes the case that future coal-burning technology could some day accomplish safe emissions levels for mercury, sulfur, carbon and other pollutants, but at a cost that is likely to make it unable to compete with other fuel resources (that’s without even counting public health costs related to the aforementioned mountaintop mining impacts).
Bloomberg.com’s editorial position on coal has been flying under the radar, but now that Peabody mentions it, that’s exactly the kind of stepped-up level of commitment that the CSR movement needs to take it to the next level.
As long as the U.S. still depends heavily on coal to power its economy, green-transitioning companies that do business in the U.S. are going to have their message muddled by the reality of coal’s broad public health and environmental impacts. Sooner or later, they’re all going to have to take a stand.