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.

Washington Post:

“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.

Below – the true cost of coal in Michigan, and Nevada

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.


10 Responses to “The Cost of Coal”

  1. rayduray Says:

    While it is a sensible goal to eliminate coal from our energy mix, there’s reason to question the Sierra Club as a clean hands player after it was announced that the primary funding of the Sierra Club’s “Cost of Coal” campaign came from Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, one of the nation’s largest natural gas suppliers.

  2. The Post article seems to say how bad coal is (and it is horrible) and then pretends that the solution is natural gas – as if it is has no issues regarding climate change, resource depletion, or environmental degradation. Fracking has terrible hidden costs as does mountain-top removal. One may indeed be worse, but if we’re talking about a slight change in an exponentially growing system we might as well be talking about no change.

    Everyone who is in the “system” has dirty hands in regards to the rampages of industrialization (also called ‘externalities’) to some degree. If one uses electricity on the grid, they are purchasing some level of coal burning, and if they drive with a gas-powered car, they are emitting CO2 and supporting the oil industry. If we buy an iPad, we support virtual slavery in China. If we buy a diamond, or if we buy a cheap pair of tennis shoes, or something as innocuous as a beach ball – the end result is the same – support of a system causing suffering to other humans and to the environment.

    Many of us commenting on this blog live in North America and Europe. We are the financial beneficiaries of an economic empire which started with the devastation of the Americas and Africa during colonialism and continues to this day with more subtle methods.

    This is the great tragedy of our age. We’re all guilty.

    The vast majority are wholly ignorant of most of industrialization’s externalities. Some who know find ways to excuse it – it’s just a minority that suffer, who cares about a few animals anyway, a river can be cleaned in time, or even that the profits earned by the externality can be used for a greater good.

    Some even just take them as a natural part of capitalism, and believing capitalism to be the best system ever devised for man’s prosperity – one should take the good with the bad.

    In the end it comes down to greed and ignorance – on an individual and a collective level. We either don’t know about the true costs, we actively deny or ignore them, or we find ways to justify them. In effect, we’ve been corrupted.

    There are those at the top of the system pulling most of the levers and who are actively attempting to steer public opinion in regards to either being ignorant or managing justification about this matter. We’ve even developed an entire field of academic study devoted to its justification – economics.

    I’m generally frustrated by the lack of concern, even recognition, of this problem that goes to the core of our culture, and I’m just as guilty as most (and likely more so). Being born upper-middle class, a WASP, living in the U.S., and being largely unaware of these issues for most of my life – I might as well have poisoned these families’ air and drinking water myself.

    Documentaries like these are a good first step, as is moving away from the most destructive elements like coal use towards less pollutive (although still destructive) sources like PV. But what we REALLY need is the broad recognition of the true costs and problems of industrialization. Only then can we really hope to ‘solve’ or even mitigate them. As our top leaders don’t show even the slightest inkling towards this (and one candidate seems to wholeheartedly wish for it to amplify), I’m not optimistic we’re going to see this any time soon.

    • rayduray Says:

      Brilliant! Thanks for some of the most insightful writing I’ve come across in weeks.

      Our economic model is basically perverse. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s the consumption, stupid” that is leaving a horror for the child to be born in 2030. What madness for us to live in a world that gages when it is going to run out of everything in another few generations. We’re running out of petroleum, clean water, many minerals, uncultivated arable land, fish in the sea, etc., etc.

      What kind of a dystopia will this planet be in century on our present over-consumptive course? Well, one thing is for sure, the flattened out mountaintops in Appalachia will still be deserts and the deserts of the Middle East will no longer bloom once all the fossil water is all extracted. But will Pennsylvania, North Dakota and elsewhere be uninhabitable because we’ve poisoned the water seeking ephemeral and temporary methane supplies? That seems to be the blindly greedy course we are on.

      Here’s one of my favorite anti-consumption activists, Rev. Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping, rising up against the lowering of mountain top in Appalachia:

    • Perfect! As described by set theory….

  3. astrostevo Says:

    The cost of coal? I thought it was a stocking full of gifts at Christmas time if you were a bad boy no? 😉

    Sadly, its much, *much* worse than that.

  4. Jean Mcmahon Says:

    Can you all go to today’s denver Post 10/12 and reply to Roger Pielke Jr’s guest editorial re global warming and xtreme weather??””””””’Spin is rampant

  5. xraymike79 Says:

    We could rapidly deindustrialize a short amount of time, remediating the land with biochar and restructuring our food production to permaculture/organic farming. Our moribund car culture would need to be dismantled and converted to an electric rail system. We could do a lot of radical things in order to change course and save ourselves from extinction, but we won’t because of the intractable inertia of our current system. I’m sorry to tell you this, but we are toast. As Guy McPherson said, “We’re done, stick a fork in the human race.”

    Industrial civilization got high for a brief time, but eventually OD’d on fossil fuels. By this time next century our numbers should be sufficiently culled to allow the Earth to regenerate once again over a few million years.

  6. andrewfez Says:

    Not everybody living in coal states are coal miners or (directly) dependent on the coal industry. Romney might as well say “I like Real Estate!” in order to capture that ever allusive California vote, or “I like Fishing!” to grab Alaska (or whatever state has a well endowed fishing industry).

    Do the coal-dependents’ votes really make or break the elections? I’m sure they did once upon a time when it took tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people to hand pick the coal from the mines. But today’s tech has killed most of those jobs…

  7. sailrick Says:


    “I like coal. I’m going to make sure we continue to burn clean coal. People in the coal industry feel like it’s getting crushed by your policies.”

    Clean coal? What planet is Ronney on?
    Two lies in one sentence, pretty bad, even for Romney

  8. Martin Lack Says:

    We stopped mining asbestos when we realised it was dangerous. As to when this will happen with coal mining? Sadly, all bets are off.

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