U.S. Coal Industry Fires a Shot at Bloomberg, Misses the Point

Peabody Energy and WCA criticize Mayor Bloomberg on coalSomehow 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.

[Image: Target by Ivan McClellan]

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

One response

  1. The current politically-correct but scientifically shallow narrative is that fossil fuels are dirty and have made a career of killing people with their pollution. What is really dirty and kills people is their own wastes concentrated by urbanization–and urbanization is a relentless process that has been going for millennia (long before the advent of fossil fuels). Fifty percent of humans now live in large cities and it will be an ever higher fraction in the future. Nothing ruins water quality faster than concentrating millions of people together in a city, or air quality faster than each family burning biomass in their multiplied thousands of densely spaced indoor cook stoves and fire pits. The WHO estimates that 3 million people die each year in the developing world from indoor air pollution from their stoves and fire pits–2 million of them children. In addition, untold millions die from extreme heat or cold because they lack the energy and means to shelter themselves from the weather with heating and air conditioning. What is the single factor that has most dramatically improved longevity and health in the world’s modern cities? Electrification. Electrification allows the fuels that power modern civilization to be burned at large scales, with much greater efficiency, with much greater pollution controls, and at greater distances from human lungs. Coal has been a principle agent in the creation of modern civilization, continues to be a major source of electricity in developed nations (use is increasing in Germany and much of Europe). Coal is bar far the the least expensive and most rapid path of providing electricity to the billions of people in the developing world who currently have none in their homes and thus suffer the highest health risks and the shortest longevity. And clean coal is a reality. London was the birthplace of the coal-fired industrial revolution and today the air quality is better than it was in the 1600s. Pollution peaked in the city between 1850 and 1900, and then rapidly improved with the progress of electrification. And this pattern has been duplicated across the world, with ever more compressed time scales. China is currently struggling through their transition, with hundreds of millions still to get electricity for the first time, and their air quality will ultimately improve as well. Same for India. Meanwhile, consider that Indonesia is the number three emitter of CO2 in the world because of the forests and peat they are burning to replace with oil palm plantations for biofuel. A comprehensive study of all externalities and alternatives would reveal that coal offers far more benefit than cost in both energy and health to a large portion of the world. Because population growth is known to decrease with economic development, a rational case might even be made that accelerating global development through rapid electrification with coal power plants would actually reduce overall CO2 and polluting emissions by more rapidly curbing population growth. Knocking a billion or two billion people from the projected future population would have a dramatic positive effect on future global health and the environment. We need thoughtful people to take a sophisticated and scientific approach to solving the world’s problems. We can’t leave it up to self-important Malibu celebrities and myopic mainstream media pundits and self-serving politicians swaying the uninformed with emotional appeals. For the sake of our grandchildren, we have to do what actually works, not what sounds good.

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