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The Decline and Fall of the Coal Empire

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Energy & Environment
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By Kyle G. Crider

It has been claimed that “coal saved the forests, oil saved the whales.”

Whether or not this is true – and I must leave you to do your own research on this interesting topic – it is quite true that coal’s birth in Britain as an energy source was precipitated by another energy crisis: deforestation. A November 1977 Scientific American article (PDF) explains:

"This transition from woodcutting to coal mining as the main source of heat was part of an early British economic revolution. The first energy crisis, which has much to do with the crisis we now face, was a crisis of deforestation.

"The adoption of coal changed the economic history of Britain, then of the rest of Europe and finally of the world. It led to the Industrial Revolution, which got under way in Britain in the last two decades of the 18th century. The substitution of coal for wood between 1550 and 1700 led to new methods of manufacturing, to the expansion of existing industries and to the exploitation of untapped natural resources."


Of course, the coal-lined road to Industrial Revolution, for all its benefits, brought many problems of its own related to the mining and burning of coal. (Interesting coal trivia fact: The first edict against coal burning in England actually dates to the latter part of the 13th century!)  In a 2012 paper, Air Pollution and Fuel Crises in Preindustrial London, 1250-1650 (PDF), William H. Te Brake quotes Royal Society Fellow John Evelyn of London from 1661:
"It was one day, as I was Walking in Your Majesties Palace at White-Hall, ... that a presumptuous Smoake . . . did so invade the Court that ... Men could hardly discern one another for the Clowd, and none could support, without manifest Inconveniency. This smoke, he explained, came from one or two Tunnels (smokestacks) nearby, indangering as well the Health [of the king and his subjects] as it sullies the Glory of this ... Imperial Seat. And what is all this, but that Hellish and dismall Cloud of Sea-Coale, an impure and thick Mist, accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour, which renders them obnoxious to a thousand inconveniences, corrupting the Lungs, and disordering the entire habit of their Bodies, causing Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions [to] rage more in this one City, than in the whole Earth besides."

Fast forward to today. According to the World Health Organization, burning coal is a major contributor to “1 in 8 of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Reducing air pollution could save millions of lives.”

This is not just a developing-world problem due to coal- and wood-fired cook stoves. Desmogblog lists the following facts from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Energy report:

A typical-sized 500 megawatt coal-fired electricity plant in the United States puts out each year:


  1. 7 million tons of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas, and is the leading cause of global warming. There are no regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S.

  2. 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide (SOx) is the main cause of acid rain, which damages forests, lakes and buildings.

  3. 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) is a major cause of smog, and also a cause of acid rain.

  4. 500 tons of small particles. Small particulates are a health hazard, causing lung damage. Particulates smaller than 10 microns are not regulated, but may be soon.

  5. 220 tons of hydrocarbons. Fossil fuels are made of hydrocarbons; when they don’t burn completely, they are released into the air. They are a cause of smog.

  6. 720 tons of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas and contributor to global warming.

  7. 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge from the smokestack scrubber. A scrubber uses powdered limestone and water to remove pollution from the plant’s exhaust. Instead of going into the air, the pollution goes into a landfill or into products like concrete and drywall. This ash and sludge consists of coal ash, limestone, and many pollutants, such as toxic metals like lead and mercury.

  8. 225 pounds of arsenic, 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, and many other toxic heavy metals. Mercury emissions from coal plants are suspected of contaminating lakes and rivers in northern and northeast states and Canada. In Wisconsin alone, more than 200 lakes and rivers are contaminated with mercury. Health officials warn against eating fish caught in these waters, since mercury can cause birth defects, brain damage and other ailments.

  9. Trace elements of uranium. All but 16 of the 92 naturally occurring elements have been detected in coal, mostly as trace elements below 0.1 percent (1,000 parts per million, or ppm). A study by DOE’s Oak Ridge National Lab found that radioactive emissions from coal combustion are greater than those from nuclear power production.

  10. A 500 megawatt coal-fired electrical plant burns 1,430,000 tons of coal, uses 2.2 billion gallons of water and 146,000 tons of limestone a year.

The Atlantic, in documenting Coal’s Devastation, writes:
"Hundred-million year-old sunlight has heated our homes and powered our factories for decades. Today, that energy is delivered less often by the friendly neighborhood coal man and more by the ubiquitous electrical grid: About 39 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by burning coal. All that combustion carries a cost, though, as the carbon previously trapped underground in long-dead plants becomes greenhousing carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere."

While carbon dioxide is a worrisome chronic pollutant emitted by coal-fired power plants, there are serious acute pollutant effects on human and environmental health as well. Here in Alabama, due to pollutants like mercury, the Alabama Department of Public Health (PDF) warns folks to limit consumption of fish in many of our rivers and lakes and, in some cases, to not eat from those waters at all.

For example, at Widows Creek – site of a former coal-fired power plant, which Google recently announced is to become one of its newest renewable-energy-powered data centers – fish consumption advisories range from “do not eat any” to no more than one meal per month, defined as “one meal of fish = a half pound or 8 ounces (raw) of fish.”

Coal is facing hard times, and not just in Alabama, where according to a July 18, 2015 AL.com article, Birmingham-based Walter Energy “filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with $5 billion in debts on Wednesday, a number topping Jefferson County’s bankruptcy and any other coal company in the country since prices started dropping in 2012.” But for coal, the handwriting (that coal had been weighed in the balance, and found wanting) had been visible on the wall for some time. For example, a March 24, 2015 the Guardian reported that “the U.S. coal sector is in a ‘structural decline’ which has sent 26 companies bust in the last three years.”

Andrew Grant, co-author of the report cited by the Guardian, explains: “The roof has fallen in on U.S. coal, and alarm bells should be ringing for investors in related sectors around the world. These first tremors are amongst the clearest signs yet of a seismic shift in energy markets, as high carbon fuels are set to be increasingly outperformed by lower carbon alternatives.”

Of course, King Coal would like to lay the blame for its woes on those upstarts and rogues Obama, environmentalists and the Clean Power Plan. However, even the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post know that the picture isn’t that simplistic. ‘Twas economics, not politics that deposed the king.' And we will all be able to breathe (and eat) a little easier for it.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Roger W 2) Alabama Department of Public Health

Kyle G. Crider is Energy Project Manager for the Alabama Environmental Council and the Alabama Solar Knowledge project. Kyle holds a bachelors in Environmental Studies and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND).

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