Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet

Time for a Moratorium on Coal
May 22, 2008

CoalIn March of this year, a Midwestern power company canceled a new Missouri coal plant, and in April, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed two more for her state.  Each cited rising concerns about carbon emissions and climate change in their explanations.

“We’re already a very heavy carbon state,” Sebelius told the Wichita Eagle.  Benefits of low-cost electricity “are really less significant than the harm that carbon would do and potentially the financial risk that puts those ratepayers and taxpayers in.”

Sebelius is not alone, with former Utah governor Olene Walker, a Republican, protesting a proposed coal-fired power plant in Nevada, and Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Purdue of North Carolina (daughter of a former coal miner) calling for a moratorium on new coal-fired power in her state. 

These government and company officials are simply catching up to the public.

According to a 2007 poll, nearly 90 percent of Americans surveyed said they favor a moratorium on coal plants, and agree that it’s time for “a new industrial revolution, one that is characterized by the orderly phasing out of fossil fuels and the phasing in of clean, renewable energy sources.”

Despite rhetoric from those pushing coal-fired power on a nation ready for a clean energy future, most Americans realize coal is not clean.

First, coal-mining exacts a huge environmental toll on local communities and health toll on miners. Mountaintop removal mining clear-cuts forests to expose the tops of mountains, which are then detonated with explosives.  With the coal extracted, unused soil and rock are dumped into adjacent valleys.  The process destroys the ecosystem, and sends toxic waste downhill into slurries, which can poison local communities.  With its numerous on-the-job hazards, coal mining is, simply put, one of the deadliest professions for workers.

Secondly, even if the processes used to extract the coal weren’t so dangerous and disruptive, there is no remotely “clean” process for burning coal.  According to a Department of Energy statement last year about a coal-plant intending to sequester carbon emissions underground, such a process is not yet “a reasonable option because sequestration technology is not sufficiently mature.”  The actual cost of permanently storing coal-plant pollution underground is prohibitive (according to some estimates, it’s more expensive than building a nuclear plants), and no studies can predict the long-term effects of carbon sequestration.

Third, the price of coal is skyrocketing.  An Ohio coal plant under construction now was  proposed to cost just over $1 billion, and instead has cost over $3 billion with costs rising.  And that’s just the cost to build the plant – not to run it, sequester the carbon, or to pay for coal.  Meanwhile, the cost of coal has quadrupled since last year, triggering utility rate increases around the country.  For example, Dominion, in Viriginia, has prposed an 18 percent rate hike, just to pay for the cost of coal.  Solar energy starts to look pretty good – at about the same price to install as coal, with no fuel costs (free power from the sun), and almost no operation and maintenance costs.

Finally, according to the Clean Air Task Force, pollution from coal-fired power plants causes 30,000 deaths per year in the US – more than drunk driving, AIDS, or homicides.  Plus, fine particles and gases from coal plants are linked to asthma, heart disease, emphysema, and lung cancer, and mercury pollution from coal plants can cause birth defects. 

All of this is on top of coal’s climate-change causing effects.

With little leadership at the national level on this issue (the Bush administration’s most recent proposals cut research into solar power while increasing research on carbon sequestration and coal power), we need all state leaders to follow the examples of Kathleen Sebelius, Olene Walker, and Beverly Purdue. 

In 2007, nearly 60 coal-fired power plants were canceled across the country.  This year, 8 more plants, including the two mentioned above, have been canceled, but there are plenty still planned.  It’s time to tell your governor that your state is ready for a major push on energy efficiency and renewable power -- and that it’s time to close the door on coal.

--Andrew Korfhage


Please contact Todd Larsen by email
or by phone at 202-872-5307.


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