Posted on May 2nd, 2012
When I first heard the phrase “clean coal”, I was amazed by the proximity of these two words. I’d never once thought of coal as clean. I’d never touched a piece of coal without needing to wash my hands. It was a memorable phrase, and after I’d heard it again and again – and seen it on an immense billboard in Pennsylvania, I got to wondering if there was such a thing.
Clean coal is something we could all hope for, and want to believe in. The US has 25% of the world’s coal reserves, so it is abundant. Coal provides almost half of US electricity, and about half of the world’s new electricity demand for the past decade, so it is important. And electricity from coal is potentially cheaper than from other sources. In this piece, I take a closer look at the cleanliness of coal extraction and electricity production, and the “Clean Coal” claims of the public relations firms working for the coal industry.
Organizations such as The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, America’s Power, the World Coal Association, and the American Coal Council have made many claims about “clean coal”. Specific claims include:
- New plants are clean. “new coal plants built today have greater than 90 percent removal for SO2, Nox and mercury.”i
- New plants are cleaner than before. “Over the last four decades, regulated emissions from coal-fueled plants have been reduced by nearly 90 percent.”ii “21st century coal plants emit 40% less CO2 than the average 20th century coal plants.”iii “Clean coal technologies have successfully helped reduce regulated emissions by 60 percent since 1970. While coal use has more than doubled over the past 40 years, emissions of SO, NOx, particulates, ozone, lead and CO have decreased.”iv
- Regulating the industry is bad. Government regulations make energy more expensive, and destroy jobs.v
I’ll look at one form of coal extraction – the mountaintop mine – and then at coal-fired power plants.
Mountaintop Mine/Valley Fill (MTM/VF): How it Works
Coal comes from underground mines, from strip mines, and from mountaintop mines. Mountaintop mines remove mountain tops, extract coal, and dump the unwanted debris in the valley below. The process involves these basic steps:
- Clearing. First, the top of the mountain is cleared of trees, other vegetation, and topsoil. If the price of coal is going up, the coal company may have more to gain by burning the trees, or illegally dumping everything into valley fills.
- Blasting. Blasting with millions of pounds of explosives now takes off hundreds of feet of surface soil and rock, until the coal seam is reached. The blasted material is dumped in the valley below.
- Digging. Monstrous drag lines remove the coal. These draglines stand 22 stories high, and can hold two dozen compact cars in their buckets. They are expensive, but cheaper than workers using smaller equipment.
- Dumping Waste. Rock and coal are separated, and the rock is dumped into the valley. As of 2001, the EPA permitted over 1,000 miles of Appalachian streams to be buried by such fill.
- Processing. Coal is washed and treated before loading it in trains. The used wash water, called coal slurry or sludge, contains a mix of coal dust, clay, arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, and chromium. This is dumped into impoundments, where it either soaks into the ground water or sometimes break out of the impoundment and floods the valleys below.
- Reclamation. Typically, non-native grass seed is sprayed over the affected area, and the company leaves. Trees may not return for hundreds of years, and the local water supply remains polluted.
Mountaintop Mining: Not Good for the Neighborhood
The EPA summarized research on the effects of mountaintop mining in a report in 2003. This section notes key findings from that report.
MTM/VF destroys streams. “Approximately 1,200 miles of headwater streams (or 2% of the streams in the study area) were directly impacted by MTM/VF features including coal removal areas, valley fills, roads, and ponds between 1992 and 2002. An estimated 724 stream miles (1.2 % of streams) were covered by valley fills from 1985 to 2001.” (EPA, 2003)
More minerals and toxic chemicals, less biodiversity. Water seeping out of valley fills contains toxic dissolved chemicals and minerals. Stream monitoring reveals significant increases in conductivity, hardness, sulfate, and selenium concentrations downstream from minesvi. Native species of fish and invertebrates are replaced with non-native species that are more pollution tolerantvii. Stream biodiversity diminishes.viii
Forests replaced with grass. More than 7% of Appalachian forests have been cut by mining operations. Reclamation usually involves spraying grass seed on compacted soil that is too densely packed to support new trees. According to various studies (EPA, 2003), “the natural return of forests … occurs very slowly. Full reforestation across a large mine site in such cases may not occur for hundreds of years.”
Increased Runoff. In West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, where mountaintop removal is practiced, more than 450 mountains and summits have been destroyed, and more than 700,000 acres have been leveled or filled. Mine sites are characterized by removed vegetation, alterations in topography, loss of topsoil, and soil compaction from the use of heavy machinery. These factors combine to reduce infiltration capacity and promote runoff.ix More runoff means increases in the frequency and magnitude of flooding downstream.x
Flooding with Sludge. Valley fills are generally stable, but collapses or leaks in sludge dams on impoundments probably pose the biggest risk to residents, for they further contaminate drinking water.
Mountaintop Mining: Not Good for the Economy
In 1923, there were 9,331 mines in the U.S. In 2011, there were 1,300. As coal companies closed the mines, the number of miners dropped from 704,793 in 1923 to 88,000 in 2011. Yet production increased during that period, from 564 million short tons to 1,097 million short tons.xi
Today, coal mines are getting more from fewer people. In 1923, the average miner produced 843 tons of coal. In 2011, a miner produced 12,465 tons.xii Coal mines have been systematically improving their machinery, and replacing miners with mining machines. Today, the mining industry employs just 2% of the Appalachian workforcexiii.
Throughout Appalachia, mining counties are the poorest – sometimes the poorest in the nation, despite the fact that great wealth is taken from them.xiv Most mining counties have median household incomes below the average for West Virginia, family poverty rates above the state average.
The poverty of mining counties becomes most severe when the mine shuts down. According to a 2009 survey of 410 mountaintop removal locations in Appalachia, 89% had no post-mining economic developmentxv. In a study by the Associated Press, just 1.8% of Kentucky mining lands have been designated for “commercial,” “industrial” or “residential” developments, and about 7% of West Virginia’s mining lands.xvi
But poverty is not the only problem in mining counties. Income disparity reduces the ability of an area to adapt to economic changes or grow economically.xvii West Virginia’s mining counties have a higher level of income inequality than the state average. In 2009, for every household in the mining counties earning over $100,000 a year, there were eight households earning less than $30,000 a year. For the state as a whole, there were four households earning less than $30,000 a year for every household earning over $100,000 a year.xviii
Here are some figures of interest:
- $9.9 million: average annual salary of the President of a major US mining company in 2009xix.
- $250 million: average annual salary of the President of a major US mining company in 2009, including salary, pension, securities granted, and shares subject to resale restrictions.xx
- $35 thousand: average annual salary of a Laborer in a small US surface mine.xxi
Mountaintop Mining: Not Good for Your Health
More unhealthy days. A 2011 study asked questions about how many poor mental and physical health days they experienced in the previous 30 days. Self-rated health and health-related quality of life were significantly reduced among residents of mountaintop mining communities. Mountaintop mining county residents experience, on average, 18 more unhealthy days per year than do the other populations.xxiii That’s approximately 1,404 days, or almost four years, of an average American lifetime.
More birth defects. In a 2011 study, investigators reported that children born in counties home to mountaintop coal mines had a 26% higher risk of suffering birth defects, compared to ones born in non-mining regions, after controlling for age, sex, smoking, occupational exposure, and family cancer historyxxiv.
More cancer. In another 2011 study, researchers found that the cancer rate was twice as high in a community exposed to mountaintop removal mining compared to a non-mining control community. The correlation held after controlling for age, sex, smoking, occupational exposure, and family cancer history.xxv
Economic benefits a small fraction of health costs. A 2009 study reports that coal mining in Appalachia costs five times more in premature deaths than the industry provides in jobs, taxes, and other economic benefits. The scientists compared age-adjusted mortality rates and socioeconomic conditions across Appalachian counties with varying amounts of coal mining, and with other counties in the nation. The study found that the coal industry creates about $8 billion per year in economic benefits for the Appalachia region, but even using conservative estimates, the cost of premature deaths attributable to coal mining is valued at approximately $42 billionxxvi.
Coal-Burning Power Plants: Current Technology
Higher Efficiency, Lower Emissions (HELE) coal technologies include supercritical pulverised coal combustion (SC) and ultra-supercritical pulverized coal combustion (USC). HELE coal technologies increased from approximately one quarter of coal capacity additions in 2000 to just under half of new additions in 2011. The trend is good, but progress is not: in 2010, one-half of new coal-fired power plants were still being built with subcritical technologyxxvii
Coal is the most CO2-intensive fossil fuel, emitting about 3 pounds of CO2 for every pound of coal burned. The U.S. burns over 1 billion tons of coal every year… A large coal-fired power plant emits the CO2 equivalent from one million SUVs.xxix Coal burning produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than other fossil fuels.xxx Coal contributes approximately 35% of energy-related CO2 emissions.xxxi
Mercury causes neurological damage, including lost IQ points, in unborn babies and young children exposed during the first few years of life. Mercury is taken up by fish and wildlife, and accumulates in the food chain. Coal-burning power plants are the largest point source category of mercury.xxxii
Non-mercury metals such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, selenium, manganese, and nickel can cause cancer. In the environment, these heavy metals accumulate in the soil, and soluble forms may contaminate water systems. Coal-burning power plants are the largest point source category of arsenic in the US.xxxiii
Acid gases cause lung damage and contribute to asthma, bronchitis and other chronic respiratory disease, especially in children and the elderly. In humans, acid gases irritate the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and breathing passages. In the environment, acid rain from NOX and SO2 damages crops and forests. Coal-burning power plants are the largest point source category of hydrochloric acid in the US.xxxiv
Coal-Burning Power Plants: A Cleaner Future?
A report to be released this June by the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that nearly one-half of coal-fired power plants built in 2010 used old, inefficient technology. But various Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies are under development that could reduce the CO2 pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) could be done by a variety of methods:
- Oxy-fuel combustion. In this technology, most of the Nitrogen is removed from air, leaving a mix that is about 95% oxygen. This gas is combined with recycled flue gas, and used to support the burning of the coal. The process uses about 15% of the output of a coal-fired power plant, and adds to the cost of electricity. The method reduces the volume of flue gases, and while it does not reduce CO2 emissions, it makes it easier to remove the CO2 for subsequent sequestration. Vattenfall has built a very small 30 MW oxy-combustion system at the lignite-fired power plant at Schwarze Pumpe, Germany. The plant has been operating since September, 2008, but does not yet sequester CO2.xxxvi That is, it is less efficient than a traditional coal-fired power plant, but releases the same levels of CO2. No other operating power plants use this technology. The company plans several small scale commercial concept plants by 2015-2020xxxvii.
- Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC). This process turns coal into synthesis gas (syngas), removes impurities from the gas so that the emissions contain less sulfur dioxide, particulates, and mercury. A good idea, but there are only 2 IGCC plants operating in the US, both with very high capital costs, high unreliability, and no CO2 capture. A new generation of IGCC-based coal-fired power plants has been proposed, although none is yet under construction.xxxviii
- Underground coal gasification (UCG). Coal is converted to gas while in the ground by burning it in situ. Under high pressure and high temperature, the coal transforms into gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrogen (H2), carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), sulfur oxides (SOx), mono-nitrogen oxides (NOx), and hydrogen sulfide (H2S). Air would be injected into the seam, and recovered gases would escape through a second well, where it would be separated into its components. CO2 would need to be sequestered. In one variation of this idea, coal would be gasified underground into “syngas”, cleaned, and used to create pure streams of hydrogen and CO2. The hydrogen would be used to power alkaline fuel cells, and the captured CO2 would be ready for sequestrationxxxix. B9 Coal of the UK has proposed this technique, but the idea remains on paper at this writing. The idea could squeeze energy from low-grade seems deep in the earth, but risks starting still more coal seem firesxl.
- the Zero Emission Boiler System (ZEBS). This proposed system burns coal at high pressure, capturing the CO2, NOx, SOx , mercury, and particulate emissions as a liquidxli. A good idea, but the technology is being developed, and there is not yet one operating plant using ZEBS.
- Post combustion CO2 capture. In one approach, a process would dissolve the CO2 emissions in water and inject the water into ultramafic rocks, where they would combine and form solid minerals. In 2009, scientists found 6000 square miles of such rock conveniently located near US cities. In theory, the rocks could hold up to 500 years of US CO2 productionxlii. A good idea, but not implemented anywhere.
Coal burning produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than other fossil fuels. Much research effort is being put into methods of capturing this gas and storing it underground. Viable methods for doing this have not yet been found.xliii
Research shows that mountaintop mining is bad for the environment, for the local economy, and for the health of those who live and work near those mines.
While powerplants could be made far cleaner, half of those newly built plants were built with old technology. Over 386,000 tons of 84 separate hazardous air pollutants spew from over 400 coal-burning power plants in 46 states.
There are many ideas for how we might deal with the massive amount of CO2 created by coal-burning power plants, but none of them are implemented on a commercial scale.
With the coal industry spending more money on public relations than on research, it is not likely that a solution to the problem of dirty coal will be found soon. Dirty coal may not be here to stay, but clean coal is not here yet.
- Environmental Protection Agency. 2003. Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on Mountaintop Mining/Valley Fills in Appalachia – 2003 http://www.epa.gov/region3/mtntop/eis2003.htm
- IloveMountains.org. Learn more about mountaintop removal coal mining. http://ilovemountains.org/resources
- M. A. Palmer, E. S. Bernhardt, W. H. Schlesinger, K. N. Eshleman, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, M. S. Hendryx, A. D. Lemly, G. E. Likens, O. L. Loucks, M. E. Power, P. S. White and P. R. Wilcock Mountaintop Mining Consequences Science 8 January 2010: Vol. 327 no. 5962 pp. 148-149 http://www.sciencemag.org/content/327/5962/148.summary
iClean Coal Technology. American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. http://www.cleancoalusa.org/clean-coal-technology
iiSteve Gates Decreasing Emissions, Increasing Innovation American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. April 26, 2012. http://behindtheplug.americaspower.org/2012/04/decreasing-emissions-increasing-innovation.html
vEnergy Cost Impacts on American Families, 2001-2012. April 17, 2012. http://www.americaspower.org/half-us-families-have-seen-energy-costs-nearly-double-past-ten-years; New EPA Rules Mean Higher Costs, Lost Jobs and Less for the Average Family to Spend. http://www.americaspower.org/EPAandyou
viPaybins, K.S., Messinger, Terence, Eychaner, J.H., Chambers, D.B., and Kozar, M.D., 2000, Water Quality in the Kanawha–New River Basin West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, 1996–98: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1204, 32 p., on-line at http://pubs.water.usgs.gov/circ1204/
viiPaybins, K.S., Messinger, Terence, Eychaner, J.H., Chambers, D.B., and Kozar, M.D., 2000, Water Quality in the Kanawha–New River Basin West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, 1996–98: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1204, 32 p., on-line at http://pubs.water.usgs.gov/circ1204/
xB. C. McCormick, K. N. Eshleman, J. L. Griffith, P. A. Townsend, Water Resour. Res. 45, W08401 (2009).; J. R. Ferrari, T. R. Lookingbill, B. McCormick, P. A. Townsend, K. N. Eshleman, Water Resour. Res. 45, W04407 (2009)
xiNational Mining Association. Trends in U.S. Coal Mining, 1923-2011. updated December 2011. Their numbers are reported to come from the Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy. http://www.nma.org/pdf/c_trends_mining.pdf
xiiNational Mining Association. Trends in U.S. Coal Mining, 1923-2011. updated December 2011. Their numbers are reported to come from the Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy. http://www.nma.org/pdf/c_trends_mining.pdf
xvRoss Geredien, “Post-Mountaintop Removal Reclamation of Mountain Summits for Economic Development in Appalachia,” Natural Resources Defense Council, December 7, 2009; additional files at http://www.ilovemountains.org/reclamation-fail/details.php#reclamation_study
xvi”AP Enterprise: Few Sites Redeveloped After Mining” NPR, Dec. 29, 2010. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/12/29/ap-enterprise-sites-redeveloped-mining/
xviiiSean O’Leary and Ted Boettner. Booms and Busts. The Impact of West Virginia’s Energy Economy. West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. July, 2011. http://www.wvpolicy.org/downloads/BoomsBusts072111.pdf
xixJack Caldwell. US Mining Executives’ Compensation February 11, 2011 http://ithinkmining.com/2011/02/11/us-mining-executives-compensation/
xxJack Caldwell. US Mining Executives’ Compensation February 11, 2011 http://ithinkmining.com/2011/02/11/us-mining-executives-compensation/
xxiJack Caldwell. 2011 Wages for U.S. Metal and Industrial Mineral Mines. May 1, 2012. http://ithinkmining.com/2012/05/01/2011-wages-for-u-s-metal-and-industrial-mineral-mines/
xxiiSean O’Leary and Ted Boettner. Booms and Busts. The Impact of West Virginia’s Energy Economy. West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. July, 2011. http://www.wvpolicy.org/downloads/BoomsBusts072111.pdf
xxivMelissa M. Ahern, Michael Hendryx, Jamison Conley, Evan Fedorko, Alan Ducatman, Keith J. Zullig. The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996–2003 Environmental Research Volume 111, Issue 6, August 2011, Pages 838–846
xxvMichael Hendryx, Leah Wolfe, Juhua Luo and Bo Webb. Self-Reported Cancer Rates in Two Rural Areas of West Virginia with and Without Mountaintop Coal Mining, Journal of Community Health. Volume 37, Number 2 (2012), 320-327 https://springerlink3.metapress.com/content/3h175p782691j628/resource-secured/?target=fulltext.pdf&sid=knae0gv45rywwu452fnwjc45&sh=www.springerlink.com
xxviMichael Hendryx and Melissa M. Ahern. Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost. Public Health Reports. July-August 2009. volume 124, p. 541-550. http://wvgazette.com/static/coal%20tattoo/Mortality%20AppCoalRegions.pdf
xxviiTracking Clean Energy Progress. Energy Technology Perspectives 2012 excerpt as IEA input to the Clean Energy Ministerial. International Energy Agency. http://www.iea.org/papers/2012/Tracking_Clean_Energy_Progress.pdf
xxviii American Lung Association. Toxic Air. The case for cleaning up coal-fired power plants. March 2011. http://www.lung.org/assets/documents/healthy-air/toxic-air-report.pdf
xxxiiEnvironmental Health and Engineering. Emissions of Hazardous Air Pollutants from Coal-fired Power Plants. March 7, 2011. http://www.lung.org/assets/documents/healthy-air/coal-fired-plant-hazards.pdf
xxxiiiEnvironmental Health and Engineering. Emissions of Hazardous Air Pollutants from Coal-fired Power Plants. March 7, 2011. http://www.lung.org/assets/documents/healthy-air/coal-fired-plant-hazards.pdf
xxxivEnvironmental Health and Engineering. Emissions of Hazardous Air Pollutants from Coal-fired Power Plants. March 7, 2011. http://www.lung.org/assets/documents/healthy-air/coal-fired-plant-hazards.pdf
xxxv American Lung Association. Toxic Air. The case for cleaning up coal-fired power plants. March 2011. http://www.lung.org/assets/documents/healthy-air/toxic-air-report.pdf
xxxixB9 Coal CCS project combines coal power with fuel cells Projects / Policy, Aug 26 2010 (Carbon Capture Journal) http://www.carboncapturejournal.com/displaynews.php?NewsID=625&PHPSESSID=ebkvd88aft5jr1d920qspir5f1/
xliiRocks Found That Could Store Greenhouse Gas. LiveScience Staff. March 9, 2009 http://www.livescience.com/3364-rocks-store-greenhouse-gas.html