King Coal

Coal is now used to generate half the electricity consumed in the United States, and its use is likely to grow as efforts are made to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Coal-powered plants, however, create carbon dioxide, a main contributor to global warming. It is estimated that coal-fired plants create 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. The plants also emit sulfur dioxide, which contributes to the acid rain that has harmed forests and lakes and is a significant factor in respiratory ailments.

It is not surprising, with the Bush administrations pro-industry posture, that little is done to limit the damage caused by coal production to both the environment and human health. The administration has generally favored powerful coal interests, which make large donations to candidates and political parties. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, almost 70 percent of coal companies donations have gone to the Republican Party, though Congressional Democrats have also benefited. Environmental and health advocates, moreover, have been critical of what they see as patronage appointments to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.


Although environmental and human damage is evident wherever coal is mined and processed, few areas of the nation show the ravages as clearly as the Appalachian states. There the main mining method is mountaintop removal, which means literally blasting off the tops of mountains to reach the seams of coal beneath. The environmental damage has been great. Debris dumped from the former mountain tops has buried valleys and more than 1,000 miles of streams and waterways.

Instead of strengthening laws to shield the Appalachian countryside and local communities from human and environmental damage, the administration has taken steps to weaken existing protections. A regulation that went into effect in August 2007, for example, allows mountaintop removal to continue, on the condition that mine operators cause as little environmental damage as possible. Environmentalists, though, have said that the plan amounts to making waterway pollution legal by exempting coal mine wastes from a 1983 regulation known as the buffer zone rule, which prohibits surface coal-mining activities from disturbing areas within 100 feet of streams. Matthew Wasson, conservation director of Appalachian Voices, told America that the 1983 rule stemmed from lawsuits filed by families and communities near the mines. The new exemption, sought by the administration, is part of an effort to avoid compliance with the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists regard the buffer zone rule as among the few protections streams and valleys have from being buried by mountaintop removal operations.

Although most of the more easily accessible coal has already been mined, mountaintop removal nevertheless continues because of huge government subsidies. Dr. Wasson noted that the billions in subsidies make it economical for coal companies to keep on producing. If the matter were left to the free market, he added, you wouldnt see mountaintop removalits moving 20 tons of earth for one ton of coal, which except for the subsidies, wouldnt be economical at all.

The bulk of the nations coal supply is now coming from the West, and over 100 new coal-burning power plants are in the planning stage. Not all states, however, are happy about them. A Kansas state agency refused an air permit for two, and opinion polls there found that two-thirds of those questioned opposed the plants. Similarly, in Montana new coal-fired plants in the Great Plains portion of the state have faced opposition, including criticism by ranchers concerned about the impact on their water supply.

New technologies, like converting coal to liquid for easier transportation, are among more recent approaches in the search for clean energy. The process involves heating coal to 1,000 degrees and mixing it with water. This requires huge amounts of water, however, and the cost of a plant would likely reach the billions. Adding to its dubious practicability is the fact that it would increase greenhouse gas emissions, because the liquification of coal releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. Proponents claim that the carbon dioxide could be stored underground through so-called carbon sequestration. But again, huge costs would be involved and the procedure has yet to be tried. Dr. Wasson sees these new technologies as a step in the wrong direction.

For Wasson and many environmentalists, the wiser route would involve investing in wind and solar energy, painless measures that would cost less than what were now spending in subsidies for the coal industry. Unfortunately, he went on, the issue is not about a lack of alternatives to coal use, but rather a powerful set of vested interests that have a strong incentive to keep us on the current track, that is, ever greater use of coal. Congress should back clean energy options more forcefully and resist the coal industrys push for increased production and, as its consequence, more pollution.

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Richard Kemmer
10 years 11 months ago
It hard to know where to begin when commenting on such a article. The charge that because of the Bush Administration, "little is done to limit the damage caused by coal production to both the environment and human health" is morose nonsense. The Bush Administration has increased the funding for Clean Coal by billions of dollars in order to clean it up and make it useful for the next 50 years. The notion that lobbyists spend the greater amount of their funding on the incumbent party should surprise no one. This is how Washington works. If (when?) a Democrat becomes President, Surprise!!! the funding will go primarily toward Democrats. Get used to it. (Of course, if it is Obama, one suspects that the Editors will not decry or criticize it then. Why does that possibility not surprise me?) One could spend hundreds of hours and pages refuting the global(oney) warming hypotheses but suffice it to say that the amount of solar radiation upon the earth is far more influential than the puny amount of CO2 that is produced by cows, sheep and, I might add, coal power plants. Moreover, the earth has repeatedly gone through cycles of warming and cooling over its lifetime, all of them uncorrelated to coal plants or SUVs. My Jesuit education taught me to think and reason and be skeptical of pat answers. Perhaps the Editors would like to try that. Please get the actual facts before writing specious editorials. Insofar as Wind, Solar and liquification are concerned, the Editors have much to learn. Even the most optimistic forecasts indicate that Wind and solar will supply but a tiny fraction of the energy needs of America for very simple reasons: wind blows intermittantly and so does the sun shine. When the wind does not blow or it is dark, do the Editors propose to turn off their computers, heat, light, etc.? These technologies may have their place but the Editors have bought in on the incessant environmentalist "big lie" that Wind and Solar can somehow substitute for coal plants within our lifetimes. Let me say it succinctly: Stop drinking the Kool-Aid. I have financed these plants. None of them is even a fraction as efficient (= cheap power) as coal. If the Editors want to see their power bills increase by a factor of 2-5X, let them keep pushing wind/solar power but, they should not be surprised when their bills skyrocket. On the other hand, when discussing coal liquefaction, they dismiss it because it is "a step in the wrong direction." Hello, my Jesuit education says that is an argument from authority, the weakest type of argument. The truth is that, today, coal liquefaction is an economically viable technology that would have a substantial impact on our energy situation. I know because of my long standing involvement in financing such facilities. Coal liquefaction is PROVEN technology with plants operating is several parts of the world. What I find very disturbing, more disturbing that the poor premises and shoddy reasoning is the notion that a religious (or better: quasi-religious) publication like America should be engaging in such nonsense premised upon further nonsense. I expected far more from the front line intellects of the Church. If this is the best that the Jesuits can do, God help the Church.
Dianna Dickins
10 years 10 months ago
Thank you for bringing the issue of Mountain Top Removal to the attention of your national audience. This is a very serious issue that many people who live in the Appalachian region contend with every day, but is generally not recognized on the national level. Education and awareness are essential to addressing the issue beginning the process to save/reclaim our land and people. For more information about the effects of Mountain Top Removal on the residents and environment of Appalachia you can visit:


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