Coal (literally) Blows

Each year, from its smokestacks, a typical coal plant blows off 200 lbs of arsenic, 170 lbs of mercury, 100 lbs of lead, 4 lbs of cadmium, smaller amounts of thorium and uranium, plus an extraordinary 1 MILLION lbs of assorted particulate junk, perfectly sized to fit into your lungs’ alveoli. Remarkably, coal contains 76 of the 92 naturally-occurring elements on planet Earth – so when it’s burned, clouds of toxins are released into the environment, to settle on lakes, farms and cities, to find their way into our bodies through the food we eat and the air we breath. We havent even mentioned the coal ash that gets left behind – which is so radioactive that, kW for kW, coal delivers 100 times more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear power.

And so even if coal released no CO2 at all – as in the case of so-called “clean coal” (which doesnt exist) – it would still spectacularly suck. But coal billows CO2 into the atmosphere like nothing else. Few are aware that even though natural gas and coal create electricity via similar processes, coal is so inefficient that it releases DOUBLE the CO2 per unit of energy generated.

Obama this week released a plan to reduce American CO2 emissions. Given that 40% of all such emissions come from electric power plants, and 40% of all American electricity is generated by burning coal, any such plan will involve transitioning out of coal. But what makes the transition so economically attractive in the short term isnt about CO2 – it’s about the 25,000 premature deaths and MILLIONS of days of work lost each year in the US because of all the other stuff released when we burn coal.

Quite reasonably, rich and poor countries have different attitudes toward environmentalism. In rich countries, people have huge individual stockpiles of human capital, and so it’s extremely costly when workers get sick and are unable to work – and even more costly if they die prematurely, taking their human capital with them. In poor countries, coal may make economic sense, because workers are less productive, and so you can come out ahead trading off health for cheaper fuel. Even poor areas within rich countries may likewise be tempted by cheap energy. The logic driving the demand for coal in China also drives demand in Kentucky.

In rich countries, coal is only cost-effective because health and environmental costs incidental to its use are not internalized by users. Coal would not be cheap if the electric companies who burn it, and their customers, bore the cost of the harm that their activities impose on others. Again, it isnt just about the CO2 they pump into the atmosphere, adversely affecting climate for everyone on the planet – it is no less about the people downwind from coal-fired plants who are sickened and killed. One major problem with the US federal system – and Obama’s state-by-state plan – is that the costs and benefits of coal use sprawl across state lines. Coal might be mined in West Virginia, burned in Ohio, to generate cheap electricity in Pennsylvania and lung disease in New Jersey.

Environmentalism disproportionately benefits middle class people in wealthy countries. The poor would often prefer to have a bit more income, at the cost of their health – ask any coal-miner. The rich frequently have the means to buy their way out of environmental degradation, e.g., by moving to someplace cleaner, or by filtering their air and water. It’s the middle class who gain the most by sacrificing a fraction of their income for a cleaner environment.

And thus conservative opposition to environmentalism usually takes the form of the wealthy and powerful drumming up support from low-wage workers – which, for the GOP, is simply business as usual. Environmentalism for Americans of ordinary means is common sense. Many of the tradeoffs conservatives cite in opposition to environmentalism generally – and the move to cleaner fuels specifically – are false in rich countries. American lives are too valuable to be compromised by a 19th century fuel source, which made sense in its time and place, but is today an anachronism. Coal indeed helped America become rich – but to continue to improve our lives, we as a nation must move on to cleaner energy.






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