Why Coal Should Stay in the Ground

Coal really is a trainwreck as an energy source. As much as 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the North Platte River when two BNSF coal trains collided Monday afternoon in Wendover Canyon.
Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality

Coal is the world’s dirtiest fuel. There are at least four strikes against coal as an energy fuel:

It’s messy and damaging to the environment to mine.
Whether it is the mountain-destroying techniques in West Virginia, or the strip-mining in Wyoming, coal mining causes great hard to the environment. By definition, the mine site is destroyed as productive land. The water chemistry of both surface waters and aquifers is altered. While there are reclamation standards, they aren’t always followed and reclaimed coal mining sites are no substitute for the original. These impacts last over geologic time. Besides everything else, coal is closely associated with methane; after all, that’s what causes underground coal mine explosions. An estimated 8-10% of all methane emissions come from gases released during coal mining.

It’s messy, expensive and damaging to the environment to transport.
Just last month, this problem was underscored when a coal-carrying train running along the North Platte River collided with another coal-carrying train. The collision dumped locomotives into the river, where they spewed some 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel in the river. The fuel spill was so extensive that the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality burned some of the fuel off.

Travis Schumm/ Courtesy The Platte River is set on fire following train derailment.

Travis Schumm/ Courtesy The Platte River is set on fire following train derailment.

You may have thought that the long-suffering Cuyahoga River was the last river to burn in the United States. You’d be wrong. It’s the North Platte. Last month. There are a lot of other risks and costs associated with coal transport: wind-blown coal dust, energy consumption for transport, train/human collisions and more. But let the fire on the North Platte stand for the whole suite of problem and environmental damage.

It’s inefficient to burn.
In the best case, burning coal only captures about 38% of the energy present. That’s the lowest performance of any fossil fuel. If you make an effort to reduce the massive amounts of CO2 generated, what’s called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) you reduce the efficient to just 26%. While CCS is largely unproven as a large-scale solution to coal’s massive CO2 pollution, the pilot projects clearly demonstrate it takes a lot of energy – and a lot of coal – to make CCS work. It makes the inefficiencies and costs of coal more starkly apparent.1

It generates horrific air pollution.
Besides the CO2 and the problems it creates, burning coal also releases a litany of poisons and toxins into the environment. On an annual basis, coal-fired power plants in the U.S. alone emit:

  • Mercury, a neurotoxin in even trace amounts, more than 22 tons a year.
  • Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), linked with asthma, bronchitis, smog, and acid rain, which damages crops and other ecosystems, and acidifies lakes and streams, more than 3.1 million tons a year.
  • Nitrogen Oxides (NOX), which generates smog and irritates lung tissue, exacerbates asthma, and makes people more susceptible to chronic respiratory diseases, mor than 1.5 million tons a year.
  • Very fine particulates (PM2.5), linked with chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, cardiovascular effects like heart attacks, and premature death, some 197,000 tons a year.
  • 41.2 tons of lead, 9,332 pounds of cadmium, and other toxic heavy metals.
  • 38 tons of arsenic. For scale, arsenic causes cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion.

This is not a complete list of the combustion byproducts of burning coal. And please note these figures are what’s emitted after compliance with the Obama-era emission standards; the Trump Administration has rolled those standards back.

The by-product, coal ash, is  toxic nightmare.
The other unhappy by-product of coal-burning is coal ash. the 889 million tons of coal burned in the United States (2014 data) produced about 130 million tons of coal ash. Coal ash is a toxic soup of chemicals. Altogether, about 1.5 billion tons of coal ash are stored across the U.S. That heritage of coal combustion is stored in more than a1,000 sites. Most are unlined, so precipitation leaches through them, contaminating ground water and aquifers. Heavy rains breach the retaining walls, causing the water-borne coal ash to flow into downstream areas. As many as 95% of the coal ash ponds have leaked to some extent, some catastrophically.

A failed coal ash landfill near Wilmington, N.C., on Wednesday showed heavy damage from Hurricane Florence. Kemp Burdette/Cape Fear River Watch

A failed coal ash landfill near Wilmington, N.C., on Wednesday showed heavy damage from Hurricane Florence.
Kemp Burdette/Cape Fear River Watch

Ironically, the “scrubbers” that reduce smokestack emissions result in precipitates, solids that get included in coal ash, marginally raising the toxicity of the coal ash.

This is the industry that the Trump Administration wants to protect. By any sensible measure, the sooner it can be abolished from the planet the safer we will all be.

All of which is the best place for coal is leaving it buried in the ground.


  1. The National Science Foundation funded the study that proved the true energy cost of CCS. Unsurprisingly, the NSF under the Trump Administration has removed the study from the federal website, but it is still published at the University of Michigan’s site. 

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