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.
"...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."
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.
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.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit 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.