No More Conventional Coal Plants
November 2006

The governor’s proposed fast tract approval for coal-fired power plants will result in more global warming for the entire world. On October 30, 2006 Prime Minister Tony Blair put the weight of the British government into man-made climate mitigation, accepting global warming as a fact. See the Stern Review On The Economics of Climate Change. Coal is the dirtiest and most carbon intensive of all fossil fuels.

Since 1900, more than 100,000 have been killed in U.S. coal mining disasters. A conservative estimate of those who have died from black lung is 200,000, a disease that miners contract by breathing coal dust. Air pollution has shortened the lives of more than 500,000 Americans. Power plants in the United States generate 22 percent of all nitrogen oxide, nearly 40 percent of carbon oxide and a third of all mercury emissions. They generate air emissions of lead, chromium, and arsenic. The combustion waste contains heavy metals and potentially toxic compounds that are stored in retention ponds or abandoned mines. If this waste is not carefully stored, leaking will contaminate aquifers.

Drilling for oil or gas disturbs the site and the surrounding area to a small degree. Far more invasive is mountain top removal and strip mining in Appalachia that has “destroyed more than 700 miles of streams, polluted the groundwater and rivers, and turned about 400,000 acres of some of the world’s most biologically rich temperate forests into flat barren wastelands.” These mines spread over thousands of acres in Wyoming and Appalachia. Huge draglines with buckets that could pick up a small house are used to excavate.

Despite the view presented by coal companies’ public relations departments, mining is a dangerous and brutal affair. It always has been. A 1923 investigation of mining conditions reported that conditions in West Virginia were “worse than the conditions of the slaves before the Civil War.” West Virginia is a place of “poverty, sickness, environmental devastation and despair.” Today, some West Virginia counties have some of the highest rates of obesity, cancer and loss of teeth in the United States.

It is less dangerous to work on a strip mine than underground. Working for a small non-union operator is the most dangerous of all. In nearly every mining disaster, there is a history of safety violations. Mineworkers are concerned when the Bush administration appoints coal company executives to government positions dealing with mine safety, health and regulation.

Coal mines are unsafe for anyone in the area. Fires burn in abandoned mines for decades, spreading carbon monoxide. Mines can flood for years and suddenly release millions of gallons of “red, acid-laced water, poisoning nearly streams and rivers.”

So-called natural monopolies are anything but natural. They came into existence at the behest of power plant owners to protect their interests, not the public’s. The electrical power business in the 1890s was like that of the railroad companies. High capital cost guaranteed that only a few companies could build power plants. Samuel Insull Jr., president of Chicago Edison, realized that if too many companies were to build power plants in the same period, a lot of them would go under. He sold the idea that power companies would prosper as “natural monopolies” regulated by the state rather than the market. Understanding corrupt Chicago politics of 1892, he knew that regulators would be regulators in name only. By accepting regulation, Insul effectively quashed the impetus of municipally owned power systems that existed in many cities. New business ventures had little hope of beating the “natural monopolies” that enjoyed special legal privileges and protections.

In 1935, The Public Utilities Holding Company Act broke up the big power companies and restricted the operating jurisdiction where utilities operated and limited the kinds of business in which they could invest. Regulators set rates using “cost-plus pricing” which assured the utilities a fixed return on their investments. In exchange, the utilities were obligated to serve all customers in their jurisdiction and were not allowed to compete with each other in price, quality or services.

There is a technology for coal burning plants that has a long name, integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC). IGCC uses heat and pressure to remove coal’s impurities and converts coal into a synthetic gas. IGCC plants use 40 percent less water, generate half as much ash and solid waste and are nearly as clean burning as natural gas plants.

Author Jeff Goodell maintains that power companies could chose to build a near-zero-emissions plant. The IGCC technology combined with scrubbers and carbon sequestrations can do that. Unfortunately, only a handful of the approximately 100 power plants under design or construction use this technology. IGCC have a high capital costs and the power generation industry is not convinced about the reliability of this technology.

Considering the fate of our planet and the lack of alternative fuels available, IGCC plants may be the best solution for our country, China and everyone else. This is a time for full discussion with the power companies, the environmentalists and the general public. A fast track approval would destroy this consideration.

Quotations and much material taken from Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future by Jeff Goodell.