Why We Need to Quit Coal

The coal industry has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to deceive the American public into believing that coal is here to stay, and that the country has no other option to power its schools, places of worship, and businesses. The industry spent big because it knows that the exact opposite is true. The age of coal is over. We now have the technology to ditch coal for good.

At every stage of its life — from extraction to burning — coal does serious damage. Coal is the top contributor to climate change, is a leading cause of mercury pollution, and continues to scar mining communities in countless ways.

Coal also threatens our economic security. In 2011, a Harvard report found that “the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.”

Coal Plants and Climate Change

In 2012, coal accounted for 37.4% of U.S. electricity generation. As of 2010, coal accounted for 43% of global greenhouse gas emissions from fuel combustion. Simply put, to solve the climate crisis we must stop burning coal.

Job number one is retiring old coal plants. In the U.S., coal-fired power plants have more than 300 gigawatts of capacity, but one-third of the power plants were built before 1970. Coming EPA regulations, authorized by the Supreme Court and given greater urgency by global warming, will force many of these old relics to install new technologies or close for good. With renewable energy technologies available now, we must retire our aging fleet of coal plants.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an average 500 megawatt coal plant each year emits:

10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide (SOx) is the main cause of acid rain, which damages forests, lakes and buildings. …
3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas, and is the leading cause of global warming. There are no regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. …
225 pounds of arsenic, 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, and many other toxic heavy metals. Mercury emissions from coal plants are suspected of contaminating lakes and rivers in northern and northeast states and Canada. … Health officials warn against eating fish caught in these waters, since mercury can cause birth defects, brain damage and other ailments.

Coal and Public Health

Coal-fired power plants have been linked to developmental defects in 300,000 infants because of their mothers’ exposure to toxic mercury pollution. Asthma rates are skyrocketing in communities exposed to particulates from burning coal, and now one out of ten children in the U.S. suffers from asthma. While the U.S. government has taken some steps to mandate pollution controls, two thirds of coal-fired plants still lack the technology needed to keep toxic air pollution, like mercury, acid gases and arsenic, out of our air and water.

Coal and Mining Communities

For far too long, coal mining has ripped apart communities. For example, Harvard found that coal mining takes a $75 billion toll on Appalachia alone each year by damaging its environment and poisoning its people.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the cost of coal mining is mountaintop removal (MTR). In MTR, explosives are used to blow off the tops of mountains to expose thin seams of coal. Once blasted, the earth from the mountaintop is dumped into neighboring valleys, which pollutes rivers and groundwater and undermines the Clean Water Act. In Appalachia, nearly 2,000 miles of streams have already been buried or contaminated, according to a 2005 environmental impact statement.

Every year RAN evaluates the banks that fund MTR. The latest report card can be found here.