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How Our Addiction to an 18th Century Energy Source Is Killing Us

The Dirty Business of Coal

by JOSHUA FRANK

Coal powers America. But at what cost to the environment and human health? That’s the question documentarian Peter Bull and the Center for Investigative Reporting attempt to tackle in the latest documentary, Dirty Business: “Clean Coal” and the Battle for Our Energy Future.

Coal has produced power in our country for over 100 years. It pulled us through the Industrial Revolution and has pumped electricity into the hearts of our cities. It’s also caused insurmountable death and destruction along the way, contributing more than its fair share to climate change, water pollution and worker fatalities. So how do we challenge such an entrenched part of our culture and start the process of reversing these trends? That’s the big question. Dirty Business shows us the way out of our energy and climate conundrum; we just need the political will to buck the entrenched special interests of the status quo and get imaginative with new alternative solutions.

I caught up with Peter Bull, who has worked as an investigative producer for the last two decades working with PBS’s Frontline among others. We discussed his latest documentary, which is now available as a DVD at the film’s website.

Joshua Frank: Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to make this film, what drew you to the topic of coal?

Peter Bull: This film grew out of another project I did with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). That was a one-hour documentary for PBS/Frontline called Hot Politics, about the politics of global warming and investigated why the Bush 1, Clinton and Bush 2 administrations all failed to take meaningful action on the greatest threat that humans have come up against. Now it looks as if the Obama administration is about to get added to the list.

That program focused on how scientists like James Hansen and politicians like Tim Wirth and Al Gore tried to sound the alarm and how legislation and U.S. involvement in the Kyoto Protocol was stymied by special interests, particularly the coal and oil lobby, which mounted an aggressive disinformation campaign casting doubt about the science of climate change and playing to the media’s propensity for on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand reporting. That kind of reporting is valid when dealing with contentious political issues but has no business being applied to reporting on scientific issues. But with climate change, the result has been that 50 percent of the airtime is given to the less than 1 percent who profess to be skeptics, while the overwhelmingly vast international scientific consensus that man-made climate change not only is real, but accelerating at a dramatic rate.

Anyway, coming off that film in 2007, CIR and I wanted to do a follow-up project, and it seemed as if no one was talking about the elephant in the room in terms of global warming: our dependence upon coal for most or much of our electricity. In the U.S. we still rely on burning coal for nearly 50 percent of our air conditioning, Internet and illumination, etc., while in China it’s closer to 80 percent. There have been a number of excellent films about coal itself, focusing mainly on Appalachia and mountaintop removal coal mining, and on the health and environmental impact locally in the coal fields, or on union issues going back to Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA. But as far as we knew, no one had done a film that really makes the connection between all of us — not just the folks in West Virginia or Kentucky — and our dependence upon this 18th-century energy resource.

I was dumbfounded to learn that in 2007 there were plans on the books for building some 160 new coal-fired power plants in the U.S. alone, and at the time we were approaching a presidential election, you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing ads for something called “clean coal.”

On top of this, we also felt a need to do a film that not only pointed out the problem — the link between coal and climate and demystify this ‘clean coal’ stuff — but also do a film that pointed to solutions. The film version of An Inconvenient Truth had come out and was great about explaining the problem, but on solutions? Not so much. So, we embarked on a pretty ambitious attempt to cover a fair amount of ground in this film — show that coal had impacts beyond Appalachia and touched all of us; give a clear and fair assessment of the proposed technology of carbon capture and sequestration, the industry’s “clean coal” fix that would theoretically allow us to continue to burn coal but not release CO2 into the atmosphere; but also to look at the extent to which we could replace coal by increasing our energy efficiency and developing sustainable, renewable forms of energy.

JF: To a lot of people, even believers, global warming remains an esoteric conundrum: it’s something that’s happening, but it’s hard to wrap your head around concrete solutions. Yet many of the people you talk to in your film point out that coal ought to be the focus of those working to put the brakes on climate change. Why is that? Why makes coal so special?

PB: Well, you know, coal really is special, or rather, has been special — mainly because it was relatively abundant, especially in the U.S., Russia and China, and I guess in the UK and Europe during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. It’s also easy to burn in order to create steam and spin a turbine in a generator (although coal plants are not very efficient — usually in the 30-35 percent range). So it was close at hand and combustible, and you usually hear that it’s also cheap. Well, it turns out it ain’t cheap, not if you count the impact coal as on the environment and on human health. We get into both the environmental and the health impacts in the film, and I think the most devastating impact in the long run will be coal’s contribution to man-made climate change: the CO2 released by the mining and burning of coal. That’s why scientists like NASA’s James Hansen and environmentalists like Bill McKibben and many others argue that if we are to have a prayer at reducing our atmosphere’s concentration of CO2, and thereby possibly averting truly catastrophic climate change, the first thing we need to do is phase out the burning of coal.

As to why, for many, it’s hard to see concrete solutions to the esoteric conundrum of what John Holdren calls “global climate disruption” — why it’s esoteric, to me, is really a mystery. Just look to the polar regions — we now have the long-coveted Northwest Passage! — and to the glaciers receding and disappearing. That sure feels urgent to me, not to mention all the problems with water supplies we’re already beginning to experience as snow melt decreases and salt water rises and intrudes on sources of drinking water.

JF: I guess I’m thinking more along the lines of solutions.

PB: Right. Maybe part of it is that our energy infrastructure is so economically as well as culturally hard-wired. We can’t imagine actually keeping track of and paying a reasonable price for the electricity that saturates our lives, no more than Americans will countenance paying a reasonable price for the gasoline that propels our ubiquitous cars. We take cheap electricity and gasoline as much for granted as we do the water from our taps, and the bad news is they’re all going to get real expensive real soon as we run out of all three! It doesn’t have to be that way, as Tom and Sean Casten, from our film, will tell you, but our society has grown up with a very, very inefficient energy system that doesn’t tabulate the externalities of environmental and health costs into the product’s price.

We eventually moved factories and power plants out of the cities to mitigate pollution in densely populated areas, but that created a huge, centralized power and utility industry that is programmed to send us electrons one way — to us, to consume as much as possible, not as efficiently as possible. That’s created a whole industrial sector whose traditional incentives are completely at odds with what would be necessary to replace coal: be more energy efficient, first — the lowest hanging fruit — while developing sustainable, renewable technology like wind, solar, geothermal, and stuff like algae and maybe switch grass and who knows what else? Those who argue for a quick conversion to renewables want to decentralize the energy system and power grid, make it local and make it a smart grid that has feedback loops to allow individuals and localities to feed electrons back into the system and reverse the one-way system we have now. That is hard to wrap your head around, and a lot of people with vested interests don’t want to, as Pete Ferrell, the wind developer in our film found out; but it’s an ostrich-like response.

So, start with coal, they argue. And give much greater subsidies and incentives to create alternative energy sources to scale up as quickly as possible to replace coal. Studies like “Beyond Business as Usual,” published in May by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. conclude that, “by the middle of this century, the U.S. could replace coal-fired electricity generation with energy efficiency and renewable energy, and we could reduce our use of nuclear power. Near-term costs would be modest, and long term savings would accrue.”

And yet a recent Bloomberg study shows that governments worldwide are still giving 12 times the amount of subsidies — still! — to the fossil fuel industries we need to eventually retire. That takes us back to the truly perplexing conundrum that despite what good science tells us, whether we’re going to be able make the necessary changes in time is, tragically, a political problem. And our political system, for all its charms, doesn’t seem equipped to handle it.

JF: Speaking of government subsidies, you mentioned earlier that President Obama may be added to the list of presidents who have flopped on the issue of coal and climate change. Over 100 environmental activists were recently arrested in Washington protesting this administration’s position on mountaintop removal coal mining. Why does there seem to be such a disconnect between the reality of the climate science, the pressure to find solutions and the bureaucracy of public policy?

PB: I think the disconnect comes from the influence of money on politics, the influence of entrenched industries like coal and the utilities, along with a propensity for short-term thinking. Both the quarterly profits cycle of corporate earnings and the two-year/four-year election cycle together make it very difficult to incentivize long-term thinking, and climate change is nothing if not a long-term problem.

The economy of a state like West Virginia is coal-dependent, such a large part of state revenues are derived from the extraction of coal — severance taxes. The result is a kind of infrastructure paralysis and means states like West Virginia have failed to diversify their economy by incentivizing other industries; coal gets all the juice, because that’s the way it’s been done for so long. Change? Threaten my out-of-date job? As our film notes: Because of industrial-scale mechanization including mountaintop removal mining the amount of coal mined in this country has doubled since 1973, while total coal mining jobs have been cut in half.

Now we have the midterm elections, and the Blue Dog Democrats from the coal-dependent states aren’t going to stick their necks out for policies that would probably hurt them in the short term — and of course that’s all that counts in our political cycle — even though it would undoubtedly help them in the long term adjust to the realities of a carbon-conscious world. The bureaucracy of public policy you’re talking about is largely now in the hands of deep pocket private corporate interests exerting more influence today than ever before, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Campaign finance reform, which will be as essential for solving this problem as placing a price on carbon emissions, now seem both equally elusive.

JF: Recent polls have shown that most people believe global warming is really happening, but what about all those denialists out there who think it is a grand hoax? Your film goes after this a bit and lays out a few reasons other than coal’s contribution to climate change as to why we ought to be focusing on coal. Can you talk about a few of these concerns as well as some people that are directly affected by coal’s aftermath?

PB: First, let’s ignore the climate skeptics, who refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence of man-made climate change. Coal is responsible for at least a third of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that’s producing global warming. CO2 in the atmosphere rose in July to 390.09 parts per million from 387.84 ppm the year before, and there is not a shred of credible evidence that this is due to sun spots or natural cycles, as the denialists claim. The UN and the International Energy Agency advocate a limit of 450 parts per million to “avoid social disruption” but NASA’s James Hansen insists on a limit of 350 ppm. Obviously we’ve already exceeded that, and take a look at the disappearing Arctic sea ice and the melting of the Greenland ice pack and ask which limit you think we should shoot for.

But yes, there are plenty of reasons that coal is “dirty” in ways other than being the largest single source of man-made carbon dioxide emissions.

First, the way we extract coal has a profoundly damaging impact on both the environment and human health. This is especially true of surface as opposed to underground mining, where you essentially scrape away the non-coal “overburden” — the soil, rock and topsoil that has settled and been weathered over the eons and where all the nutrients are, which support forest, plains and valley ecosystems — in order to get at seams of coal underneath. The largest surface mines in our hemisphere are in Wyoming and Montana, in the Powder River Basin, and in Colombia. Surface mining releases all sorts of pathogenic toxins and particulate matter that can cause acute respiratory problems and creates a huge amount of toxin-laden waste material that is often poorly stored in unlined pits that can contaminate ground water.

The most notorious form of surface mining, of course, is the kind of mountaintop removal mining practiced in Appalachia, where whole ridge lines are deforested and scraped away to get at sometimes very thin seams of coal that would be too expensive or difficult to tunnel for. Huge amounts of the overburden are dumped in adjacent valleys where it has contaminated and/or obliterated thousands of miles of streams and has polluted drinking water in many communities. Underground mining usually has less of a visible impact on the landscape, but can have an equally disastrous impact on water supplies due to problems like acid mine drainage — millions of tons of sulfuric acid leach from mines annually.

JF: You also cover toxic coal waste ponds in your film. Can you explain what those are?

PB: That’s the other big problem. Once the coal has been extracted, they have to put it somewhere, so they are storing the toxin-laden waste material in settlement ponds, which have been known to leak and collapse and cause nasty flooding.

Next, when you burn the coal in a power plant, there are the toxins released into the air, particularly mercury; coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the U.S. – 40 percent in 1999. During combustion, the reaction between coal and the air produces toxic substances like hydrogen cyanide, sulfur nitrate, other unpleasant stuff, along with CO2, sulfur dioxide (“sox”) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). These are responsible for ozone pollution and acid rain (which is basically sulfuric acid). The particulates and other emissions from coal plants contributed to 24,000 premature deaths annually in the U.S. alone, according to the American Lung Association. Coal and wood burning contribute to 656,000 premature deaths a year in China, according to the World Health Organization. Modern scrubbers can filter out a lot of these substances, but not the greenhouse gas CO2 — yet.

Unfortunately, scrubbing techniques are not subject to standard testing or regulation in the U.S. and are not widely implemented in some countries. Joe Lovett, the founder of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, who was interviewed for Dirty Business, says that scrubbing sulfur from power-plant emissions just means pollution is deposited in landfills instead of the air, and landfills create hazardous conditions of their own. At either end of the energy cycle, coal is just plain dirty.

One reason scrubbers aren’t widely used is they add to the capital cost of the power plant — and also reduce its efficiency. The same is true of so-called ‘clean coal’ technology — also known as carbon capture and storage or sequestration — explored in the film. Various techniques of “capturing” the CO2 emissions from a coal plant end up using so much power they reduce the efficiency of a coal plant by as much as 30 percent. In the film, we make the point that — should carbon capture and storage prove viable — it means that a filtered coal plant would have to burn 30 percent more coal to generate the same amount of power, so instead of phasing out coal, we’d be immortalizing it. That’s why the coal lobby is so very supportive of “clean coal technology.”

Finally, coal and coal waste products, including fly ash, bottom ash and boiler slag contain many heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, barium, selenium and radium, which are dangerous if released into the environment. Too often coal ash is not stored properly, leading to disasters like the Kingston, Tennessee spill of December 2008 that flooded rivers and communities with an enormous amount of coal ash residue or sludge — one of the largest environmental disaster in the U.S. to date.

I think it’s important for people to understand just how dependent we still remain upon dirty coal — and it doesn’t seem that that dependence is ending any time soon, and certainly not soon enough for us to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

JF: Can you explain why that is?

PB: Simple: we don’t calculate the externalized costs to our health and to the environment into the price of coal, so it remains an artificially “cheap” source of energy. World governments provide subsidies for fossil fuels worth $557 billion a year, including $40 billion for coal, according to the International Energy Agency. This compares with $46 billion for renewables and biofuels.

China is still building outmoded coal-fired power plants at a dizzying pace. India is moving in that direction too. In fact, the IEA predicts that global coal consumption may rise 58 percent from 2010 through 2035 — and 85 percent of the increase will come in those two rapidly developing economies.

If that’s true, we’re cooked. But my hunch is that, despite all the entrenched interests, wind, efficiency and solar are going to inevitably and sooner than later displace coal. A recent front-page story in the New York Times about big investments in Atlantic offshore wind, including a transmission backbone, was an encouraging sign lighting the road ahead.

Joshua Frank is author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, and of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.