The Cost of Coal
October 11, 2012
Award-winning photojournalist Ami Vitale traveled with SIERRA magazine to West Virginia. Mountaintop-removal mines in Appalachia have demolished an estimated 1.4 million acres of forested hills, buried an estimated 2,000 miles of streams, poisoned drinking water, and wiped whole towns from the map. SIERRA asked people to describe how the world’s dirtiest energy source has disrupted their lives—and what they’re doing to stop it.
“I LIKE COAL,” Mitt Romney declared during last Wednesday’s presidential debate.
Both candidates have catered to coal-state voters, but Mr. Romney has been particularly full-throated in his pandering. Not only did he back the “clean coal” myth last Wednesday; in August he promised Ohio coal miners that he would save their jobs. “We have 250 years of coal,” Mr. Romney said then. “Why in the heck wouldn’t we use it?” His explanation for trouble in coal country is that President Obama has a wayward obsession with regulating the economy, resulting in an unnecessary “war on coal,” a term that popped up again last month in one of his campaign advertisements.
Mr. Romney is wrong on almost every point. The coal industry cannot and should not continue operating as it has, and Mr. Obama is not the reason. Cheap natural gas has gutted the economic case for burning coal. Climate change and coal-related pollution explain why that’s a good thing.
Natural gas is coal’s primary competitor, and with the increasing use of hydraulic fracturing to extract gas trapped in subterranean shale formations, its price has plummeted. Power companies used to dispatch gas-fired electricity last because it was the most expensive. Now the chief executive of Duke Energy, the country’s largest electric power holding company, sayshis firm uses coal as a last resort.
A study from the Brattle Group finds thatcoal use is more sensitive to the price of gasthan to new government regulations. It projects that 59,000 to 77,000 megawatts of coal-fired power will come offline over the next five years, more than its 2010 estimate, despite the fact that, under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency’s coal-plant regulations turned out to be more lenient than the researchers had expected. The power plants’ reason: low electricity demand and low natural gas prices. Brattle also calculates that a $1 drop in the price of gas would double the magnitude of coal-plant closings over the next five years.
The crew travelled to River Rouge, near Detroit, MI, to look at the consequences of living in the shadow of a large coal burning facility.
Below, the impact of coal mine waste disposal on a Native American community. Since 1965, the coal-fired Reid Gardner Generating Station, about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, has dumped its combustion waste into uncovered “ponds” beside the Moapa Band of Paiutes Reservation.