Why, Despite Anti-Coal Victories, Coal Isn't Going Anywhere Soon

The Sierra Club stops a coal plant, but there's quite a lot tying the U.S. to coal right now

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Perdue University's decision not to build a new coal plant marked a victory of sorts for the Sierra Club: Thursday's announcement upped the total of abandoned coal plant proposals to 150 in ten years. At its heart, Purdue says the decision was motivated by economics as opposed to a green agenda; the "estimated increase in the cost of fuel and expected future regulations for coal use and ash disposal made the plan unworkable," is how Purdue's Bob McMains explained it to the Indianapolis Star.

And yet, college and university campuses have become a force in the Sierra Club's efforts to keep coal plants from popping up. For example, Penn State, which is smack in the middle of a coal-producing economy recently brushed off efforts to build a new coal plant, choosing instead  to invest "$35 million to convert an 82-year-old steam plant on Penn State's main campus in State College, Pa., to burn natural gas instead of coal by 2014," according to Politico's Bob King. At the time of King's report, that made Penn State the 10th college or university to commit to moving away from coal. Change.org has also recently targeted Michigan State University for an anti-coal campaign. Thus far, they've got 300 signatures for their petition but a "non-committal" response from the University's president.

The MSU struggle aside, recent news would make it seem as if the anti-coal effort is building momentum. Digging beyond the details, however, indicates that these changes are small steps compared with other issues that need to be tackled. Among them:

  • We Need Coal  According to Alex Taussig, a principle partner at the Highland Capital Partners, moving to greener energy sources and reaching Obama's green energy benchmark is doable, but moving away from coal isn't, because "58 percent of all energy we use comes from these dirty sources. Even more daunting, while there are reasonable substitutes for coal as a power source, there are few good substitutes for petroleum as a transportation fuel." Even Natural Resources Defense Council's Frances Beinecke concedes this point, saying " the reality is that coal is relatively cheap and abundant, and it generates on average half of all our electricity. Coal will continue to be a part of our energy portfolio for awhile."
  • Coal Means Jobs  As a whole, 717,000 people work in the mining industry, and coal mining employs 80,600 of them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, two-thirds of those jobs are in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Considering how slowly jobs are coming back, finding 80,600 new ones is a tall order.

  • The Big Fight Over Clean Coal   Obama's January State of the Union address embraced "clean coal" as part of his green energy proposal. Although critics think it was just a way to smooth things over in coal-dependent states, if clean coal becomes a pillar of our green energy plan, that may detract from celebrations over the end of a traditional coal plant. This is also where confusion sets in, because there's coal, which critics hate, and there's "clean coal," which critics also hate. Traditional coal mining is dirty. As The Atlantic's James Fallows points out, coal mining fills the air "not simply with soot, smoke, and carbon dioxide but also with toxic heavy metals like mercury and lead, plus corrosive oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, among other pollutants." Clean coal mucks about with the very same toxins, but ideally traps them underground. The good news is that we're getting there on making this possible. The bad news is that we aren't there yet, so "clean coal" for now really just means "marginally cleaner coal."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.