The War on Coal
May 28, 2015 9:26 AM   Subscribe

The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days. It has quietly transformed the U.S. electric grid and the global climate debate.
posted by Long Way To Go (64 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
Where do I enlist?
posted by rustcrumb at 9:33 AM on May 28, 2015 [27 favorites]


Hurray for our side (seriously). It's nice to see good news once in a while.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:38 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's WAR, I tell ya! These savages are turning up at meetings and politely pointing out that the figures suggest a coal-fired plant is probably no longer the most cost-effective option. IT'S A RUTHLESS COAL-KILLING WAR MACHINE!
posted by Segundus at 9:39 AM on May 28, 2015 [28 favorites]


This is smart, effective activism. Bravo, Sierra Club!
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:40 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Soundtrack for this FPP: Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, "Keep Your Dirty Lights On."
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:40 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Fantastic!
posted by wuwei at 9:45 AM on May 28, 2015


What is it good for? Saving 13 000 lives per year and making a small but significant reduction in the rate of climate change.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:53 AM on May 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


We turned on our solar two days ago, and I'm happy to say we are part of the solution.
posted by offalark at 9:53 AM on May 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


Don't be too gleeful. Coal is out because natural gas is cheap. Natural gas is cheap because of fracking. Choose your poison.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:55 AM on May 28, 2015 [26 favorites]


War On Lung Disease, Heart Disease, Radiation, Cancer, And People Dying Miles Underground In The Pitiless Darkness of Hades just doesn't have the same ring.
posted by Etrigan at 9:56 AM on May 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


Hurrah! Great article that has lessons for activism across a spectrum of sustainability and social justice issues (emphasis mine):
Coal used to be the cheapest form of electricity by far, but it’s gotten pricier as it’s been forced to clean up more of its mess, while the costs of gas, wind and solar have plunged in recent years.
[...]
“They’re not burning bras. They’re fighting dollar to dollar,” says attorney Jim Roth, who represented a group of hospitals on Beyond Coal’s side in the Oklahoma case. “They’ve become masters at bringing financial arguments to environmental questions.”
Lefties, progressives, true (non-corporatist) libertarians and other pro-democracy and post-capitalist types have for far too long bought into the lies of conventional economics even while trying to change society. When we realize that a lot of what counts as "good economics" is nothing more than cost externalization that ends up fucking over the 99%, we are heading in the right direction. There is no real sense in which fossil fuels, or sprawl, or wages below living-wage levels are "economical" when the back end costs born by the vast majority of the taxpayers are taken into account.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:00 AM on May 28, 2015 [34 favorites]


War on coal will only be effective for enviro-conscious ego stoking. I am with mr_roboto on this. The final calculation matters more than anything else. Our net energy requirements are only going upwards and between the manufacturing processes for PV panels and fracking for nat. gas, I don't think the death of coal has a lot to cheer for. We are replacing the much more visible and understood pollution to an insidious form of contamination.

I would be a lot happier if nuclear or even scrubbed coal was picking up the energy slack.
posted by savitarka at 10:01 AM on May 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Don't be too cynical, either, mr_roboto; even if we were just switching from coal to natural gas, that would be an improvement. Instead, we're switching from coal to gas, wind, and solar, and that's moving us closer to a sustainable future. Once the coal's gone, shutting down the natural gas plants can move up the priority list, and by then we'll have more years of investment in wind and solar that should help make renewables even more competitive.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:02 AM on May 28, 2015 [17 favorites]


The final calculation matters more than anything else.

I agree. So let's do actual life-cycle cost accounting that includes cost externalization effects and crony-capitalist subsidies. I'm confident renewables would look much better than you think they will if that were to be done--but I'm willing to let the chips fall where they may.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:04 AM on May 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


What's that word we have for when OP's username is appropriate to the post but not historically so?
posted by numaner at 10:05 AM on May 28, 2015


“They’re not burning bras. They’re fighting dollar to dollar,” says attorney Jim Roth, who added that he had been working for months to pick the most random metaphor for political activism.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:06 AM on May 28, 2015 [34 favorites]


Don't be too gleeful. Coal is out because natural gas is cheap. Natural gas is cheap because of fracking. Choose your poison.

This is addressed in TFA, acknowledging that Sierra Club is actually committed to ending fossil fuel use entirely, and noting that coal is the low-hanging fruit and that natural gas is seen as part of a short-term solution on the way to clean energy but that it is also part of the overall problem and will need to be eliminated too.
posted by hippybear at 10:06 AM on May 28, 2015 [12 favorites]




Maybe I'm weird, but I don't have a problem with coal in the abstract, that is to say when its carbon and particulate output is captured, when the fly ash is stored safely, and when it is mined without mountaintop removal. If it's not cost competitive when these externalized costs are placed where they belong, that is to say, internalized, too bad so sad.
posted by wierdo at 10:07 AM on May 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


I agree. So let's do actual life-cycle cost accounting that includes cost externalization effects

Indeed. The quote mondo dentro provided indicated that cheap natural gas was one part of the equation, yes, but so was "it’s gotten pricier as it’s been forced to clean up more of its mess". These so-called "job-killing regulations" that Republicans like to scream about are fundamental economics: Factoring the costs of externalities. The cost of burning coal doesn't end when it's shoveled into a furnace, and it's high time that we stop subsidizing the industry by allowing them to pass their costs on to everyone else. That's one reason acid rain, for example, isn't as much of a problem any more.

"Privatize the profit, socialize the risk" is a great business model, but it's hardly "free market economics."
posted by Gelatin at 10:10 AM on May 28, 2015 [9 favorites]


One of the most tragic things i have ever seen was in a field in Serbia, a young archeologist raging against the enormous coal extracting machines slowly but relentlessly coming towards him, upturning everything in his path. He was working to excavate and document as much as possible of a roman settlement before the fields where given over to a more profitable industry.
Doquixiote against windmills.

I really hope he can win his battle. I really really hope he can win it soon.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 10:12 AM on May 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yay! More efficient power production.Oh wait:

Mmmmmm...Jevons Paradox
posted by lalochezia at 10:18 AM on May 28, 2015


The Sierra Club can’t claim full credit for the coal bust. It didn’t ratchet down the prices of gas, wind and solar or enact the flurry of EPA rules ratcheting up the price of coal

They're doing great work here, but no, they didn't get these balls rolling. It's very easy to figure out the one individual who has however, even with a hostile congress.
posted by bonehead at 10:21 AM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Nifty chart of US coal consumption. Looks like it peaked in 2007 with 2014 usage about the same as 1992. In that same period natural gas consumption increased by a third.
posted by peeedro at 10:24 AM on May 28, 2015


“They’re not burning bras. They’re fighting dollar to dollar,” says attorney Jim Roth, who added that he had been working for months to pick the most random metaphor for political activism.

I thought that was strange, too. I was half expecting him to pull out "longhairs" as a pejorative. I guess he got his point across to the geriatric crowd.
posted by indubitable at 10:24 AM on May 28, 2015


"Uncle Mayor was just saying that us kids are the most important natural resource we have."
"More important than *coal*???"

I got nothin', I just wanted to quote that.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:25 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


So what about the fact that all of the coal not being burned in the US of A is being shipped to other coal burning countries? Countries without the strict environmental controls of the Good Old Us of A? Asia's share of total U.S. coal exports increased from 2% in 2007 to 25% in 2012. IIRC China is not so keen on being green.
posted by Gungho at 10:26 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Don't be too gleeful. Coal is out because natural gas is cheap. Natural gas is cheap because of fracking. Choose your poison.

Good news, everyone! From the article:

"Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar; the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010. "

Cheap silicon from China has been a challenge to those of us working on new forms of solar, but it has also had significant upside in terms of PV adoption. We're getting there, and natural gas is part of the bridge. Of course, when frackers, like coal producers, are forced to account for the enormous environmental cost of their actions, NG prices will likely go up, but hopefully this will drive the move to PV rather than back to coal.

Also clean coal is a bullshit fantasy
posted by Existential Dread at 10:29 AM on May 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


About a year ago, I took a business trip to rural Kentucky. What I noticed was that the coal industry lets you know in no uncertain terms that they pretty much fund everything from education to entertainment to propping up entire communities. While long-term, I'm for us getting away from coal, there is a human cost to it.

The other thing is that watching the war on anything is like watching Game of Thrones. The house of Environmentalism and the house of Natural Gas will ally themselves with eachother until the house of Coal is overthrown, then they will turn and shit goes all "red wedding."
posted by prepmonkey at 10:30 AM on May 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


I don't think attorney Jim Roth realizes this, but hemp brassieres are carbon neutral when used as fuel.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:32 AM on May 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Choose your poison.

Nuclear, please.
posted by 7segment at 10:34 AM on May 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


So what about the fact that all of the coal not being burned in the US of A is being shipped to other coal burning countries?

Asian countries may now consume a greater proportion of US coal exports, but overall coal exports are declining. Official numbers: "Fourth quarter 2014 U.S. coal exports (22.3 million short tons) dropped 1.6% from third quarter 2014 and dropped 19.7% from fourth quarter 2013. Coal exports have declined for seven quarters in a row."
posted by compartment at 10:38 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


So what about the fact that all of the coal not being burned in the US of A is being shipped to other coal burning countries?
Year      Exports
2008      81,519
2009      59,097
2010      81,716
2011     107,259
2012     125,746
2013     117,659
2014      97,335

Source
Numbers seem a bit too variable to be sure of a downward trend, but maybe some of the new EPA regulations apply to coal extraction as well as energy production and therefore it's become less economically viable to mine the stuff as well as burn it?

But yes, China is a problem.
posted by gwint at 10:39 AM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Asia's share of total U.S. coal exports increased from 2% in 2007 to 25% in 2012.

US coal exports can be broken down into metallurgic coal, used for making steel, and steam coal, used for power generation. About 2/3 of US coal exports to Asia are metallurgic coal. US steam coal exports are dropping overall as European demand has been decreasing.
posted by peeedro at 10:43 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


This thread gives me an excuse to post my favorite fake industry apologia ad ever:

Coal: Cheap, Abundant, Clean, Cheap
posted by leotrotsky at 10:46 AM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


So what about the fact that all of the coal not being burned in the US of A is being shipped to other coal burning countries? Countries without the strict environmental controls of the Good Old Us of A? Asia's share of total U.S. coal exports increased from 2% in 2007 to 25% in 2012. IIRC China is not so keen on being green.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, from 2007 to 2012, although coal exports to Asia increased,
While U.S. coal has also been gaining market share in Asia, it provided less than 4% of Asia's coal imports in 2012, and less than 1% of total coal consumed by the four large Asian importers.
On top of that, a substantial fraction of the coal exported to Asia is metallurgical coal, for building, not steam coal for power production, which is what's being displaced in the US. And US Coal production is (gradually) declining.

In other words, while coal consumption in China is definitely an issue in and of itself, in terms of pollution, it's not clear that US exports have all of that much of an impact on it. And in the meantime, developing clean energy systems here has the long-term benefit of driving down the costs of those systems, which will make it easier for China to transition to clean energy itself, and the near-term benefit of a less-polluted America.
posted by cjelli at 10:47 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


> when its carbon and particulate output is captured

... its economics die. Take a look at the numbers challenging the Boundary Dam sequestration project (I'd link, but I'm a little too close to the team that did the work). It's not even close.
posted by scruss at 10:53 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


War on Coal was just a bit of blowback from the War on Christmas
posted by wcfields at 10:54 AM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


...rural Kentucky. What I noticed was that the coal industry lets you know in no uncertain terms that they pretty much fund everything from education to entertainment to propping up entire communities. While long-term, I'm for us getting away from coal, there is a human cost to it.

Oh, I'm sure our elected representatives will find a way to support these communities and invest in their future as they transition to a new economic model. Not to do so would be negligent and immoral. This is just the sort of thing for which governments are instituted among men!
posted by General Tonic at 10:57 AM on May 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


One of the most tragic things i have ever seen was in a field in Serbia, a young archeologist raging against the enormous coal extracting machines slowly but relentlessly coming towards him, upturning everything in his path. He was working to excavate and document as much as possible of a roman settlement before the fields where given over to a more profitable industry.

I want to read this novel.
posted by notyou at 11:15 AM on May 28, 2015


This is me crying my eyes out over the impending demise of coal:



(space intentionally left blank)
posted by caution live frogs at 11:17 AM on May 28, 2015


I took a business trip to rural Kentucky. What I noticed was that the coal industry lets you know in no uncertain terms that they pretty much fund everything from education to entertainment to propping up entire communities.

And look how great rural Kentucky's doing!
posted by Greg Nog at 11:24 AM on May 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


Take a moment to thank Saint John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club 123 years ago today.
posted by kozad at 11:35 AM on May 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma...told me it’s hard to believe some Americans actually want to keep our abundant energy resources in the ground.

“It’s a war on all fossil fuels, and coal is the No. 1 target."
Yes, much like the noble Native Americans who used every part of the buffalo, Inhofe and his Big Energy paymasters are the true conservationists. After all—don't we owe it to all the dead dinosaurs and extinct buried forests to not rest until we've extracted every last drop and crumb of their precious decaying bones out of the cold, dead earth?
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:39 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


As Kentucky's congresspeople are to the coal industry, Oklahoma's are to the oil. They know who they actually work for.
posted by downtohisturtles at 11:46 AM on May 28, 2015


As Kentucky's congresspeople are to the coal industry[...]
posted by downtohisturtles


Eponysterical?
posted by zombieflanders at 11:51 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Fracking to extract natural gas is no panacea, but compared to mountain top mining of coal or strip mining it is a godsend. Fracking is harm reduction, not elimination, and is part of the transition to renewable energies that is already well underway.
posted by haiku warrior at 12:02 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


scruss, I'm not sure that means a lot given that the technology is new enough that there are likely significant cost reductions available should it ever see wide adoption. Solar was twice the price it is now not all that many years ago, but I don't recall many people, other than those with a vested interest in stopping it, saying that it shouldn't be pursued simply because it wasn't anywhere near cost competitive at the time.

I'm not saying that I want more coal, I'm just saying that it shouldn't be foreclosed as an option if the economics can be made to work when it is used in an environmentally sound manner. As long as the playing field is level, which includes a carbon neutral lifecycle and mitigation of other environmental effects, I don't really care what technology we use to generate power. Believing otherwise is giving in to dogma.

Well, I take that back. I do not want to see more oil burned for anything. We need that for plastics and other things we get from it. We should stop wasting it on making heat to the extent possible (airplanes may need to burn liquid fuel due to its energy density, to pick one example) since there are other fuels that can be used that are not as easy to use for all the other things oil is "good" for.
posted by wierdo at 12:03 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am in favor of compensating workers displaced by the demise of the coal industry, but keep in mind that the scale of that problem isn't terribly large: according to TFA, there are more workers currently employed by the solar industry than in coal.
posted by Asparagus at 12:11 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


(I also think communities as well as individual workers can be compensated through strategic investments, e.g. give incentives for companies to locate solar panel factories in West Virginia and Kentucky.)
posted by Asparagus at 12:15 PM on May 28, 2015


Solar will play a major role in the next two years and may disrupt the fracking/shale gas boom. By the end of 2016 it is expected that the US will have installed enough solar to power the equivalent of 7.6 million homes in 2009 that number was 360,000. Major advances in battery technology and super capacitors are expected to drop the cost of energy storage which will further accelerate the use of solar.
posted by humanfont at 12:22 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]






Norway's 900 billion dollar Sovereign Wealth Fund, the largest in the world, to divest completely from coal.

“Investments in coal companies can have both a climate risk and a future financial risk,” said Svein Flaatten of the governing Conservative party, which made a cross-party agreement to implement the selling of coal investments.
[...]
Tom Sanzillo, a former comptroller of New York State who oversaw a $156bn pension fund, also said Norway’s move was likely to spark others to do the same: “Coal stocks are losing money every day. No investment policy that I am familiar with can keep holding stocks in an industry with catastrophic losses and with no realistic case for an upside. Norway has led, and I suspect they will not be alone for long.”
posted by Rumple at 12:49 PM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


So what about the fact that all of the coal not being burned in the US of A is being shipped to other coal burning countries?

I think that is mostly metallurgical coal. Thermal coal isn't cost-effective to ship overseas, at least that's what I've been told by analysts who work in the industry. Metallurgical coal, on the other hand, they don't have nearly as much of a domestic supply of in China and so they have to import it either from the US or Australia.

The word I have heard re metallurgical coal is that once China gets over the initial developing-economy demand for raw steel, they won't need as much coal because they'll switch to what we have been doing here in the US and in other industrialized countries for a while, which is recycling scrap. Much less coal is required for that process than the initial ore-to-steel process. (In fact you can do it with natural gas, if it's cheaper that way.)

The Chinese do burn a very significant amount of their own domestically-mined coal for power production, and it's dirty as sin.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:07 PM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Sierra Club can’t claim full credit for the coal bust. It didn’t ratchet down the prices of gas, wind and solar or enact the flurry of EPA rules ratcheting up the price of coal

They're doing great work here, but no, they didn't get these balls rolling. It's very easy to figure out the one individual who has however, even with a hostile congress.


But the thing is, none of that stuff happens in a vacuum. Disclosure: I worked for Sierra Club 2009-2014, part of the time on the Beyond Coal campaign, of which I don't mind saying I am immensely proud. Anyway, Sierra Club did a huge amount of work around those EPA rules, from grassroots organizing to lobbying to getting thousands of people out to every single hearing. Definitely huge kudos to Obama for making them happen, but things like this, where there's huge, well-funded opposition, just don't happen without organizing. Ever.

SC also does a ton of work, especially on the state and local level, to promote and organize for legislation and programs that promote clean energy, going way beyond what was discussed in this article. Obviously, Sierra Club is far from the only player, but it's also not just about coal.
posted by lunasol at 1:23 PM on May 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Both the local organizing and the political change were necessary. Either but not both would have been futile, likely, or, at best resulted in much slower change. Without regulatory change, there would be no driving economic argument for increased coal compliance costs; without the ground game to force the stakeholders to understand costs, regulatory changes would simply have been fought as partisan.

My point is, this is one place where having the right people at the top was critical. For those who say elections don't matter.
posted by bonehead at 1:32 PM on May 28, 2015


Oh gotcha, and agree 100%. None of this would have happened under Presidents McCain or Romney!
posted by lunasol at 1:45 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


As an asthmatic, this is good news.

I grew up in London in the 60s and we would burn coal in our house for heat - and London had fairly recently switched to "smokeless" (anthracite) coal so this was an improvement on the past.

So I am very aware of the impact of burning coal on the health of humans - it almost killed my father who had much worse breathing than mine (he was actually marked dead on arrival at the hospital, but recovered, for us to flee to Vienna and fresh air, then later Canada and fresh air...)

> For those who say elections don't matter.

If I ever meet such a straw man, I'll be sure to tell them about this. I think even Russell Brand recanted on that matter...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:09 PM on May 28, 2015


I took a business trip to rural Kentucky. What I noticed was that the coal industry lets you know in no uncertain terms that they pretty much fund everything from education to entertainment to propping up entire communities.

It's hard to figure why. Mining contributes less than 2% of the GDP for the state of Kentucky. Mining jobs are less than 1% of all jobs in Kentucky.

The best thing they could do would be to guarantee a college education for all their children so they could escape from their coal town hellholes.
posted by JackFlash at 4:18 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


weirdo: I do not want to see more oil burned for anything. We need that for plastics and other things we get from it.

I don't understand why this isn't a central point in the argument against petroleum-derived fuels. For starters, we can still burn the stuff after it's been made into plastic junk, and second, what are we going to make high quality value-added products out of after all the oil is gone? (Oh yeah, hemp.)
posted by sneebler at 5:06 PM on May 28, 2015


I do not want to see more oil burned for anything. We need that for plastics and other things we get from it.

Only 2.5% of oil is used for petrochemical feedstock. Not really much of a factor.
posted by JackFlash at 5:21 PM on May 28, 2015


  the technology is new enough that there are likely significant cost reductions available should it ever see wide adoption

Good point, but there are other technical issues that could stymie the technology forever.

There are only two reasons to use coal: it's cheap to dig up, and it's easy to use for both baseload and dispatchable power. The thermodynamics of CO₂ extraction are a huge parasitic load on any power plant, so it puts the delivered cost of power up, and there aren't huge gains to be made in process efficiency. The extraction process itself currently greatly favours steady baseload operation, so you lose the manoeuvrability, too.

That's not to say you don't get some new saleable byproducts from the process: sulfuric acid for fertilizers, high-grade fly ash for construction, and of course, lots and lots and lots of CO₂. Unfortunately, one of the few processes that can use that amount of CO₂ is for repressurizing nearly spent oil wells, so in a way, it allows more carbon emissions to happen.

CCS might get a little more efficient, but by then, every other power technology will have eaten its lunch
posted by scruss at 5:42 PM on May 28, 2015



I took a business trip to rural Kentucky. What I noticed was that the coal industry lets you know in no uncertain terms that they pretty much fund everything from education to entertainment to propping up entire communities.

Like this? Scroll down to about chapter 7 or so, but you'll hit a paywall anyway after a little while (which is why I never made an FPP from this).

You mean we're finally fighting back?
posted by dilettante at 6:36 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


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