Front Porch Blog

Taming King Coal Editorial

To the Editor:

In its November 25 editorial “Taming King Coal,” the Times points to the dangers of building a new generation of coal-fired power plants using old pulverized coal technology that makes it impossible to capture the global warming gas carbon dioxide. It should be noted that even if the nation switches to more advanced power plant technologies, such as the integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants mentioned in the editorial, we cannot consider these plants clean as long as they burn mountaintop removal coal.

In Appalachia, over 450 mountains have been destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining, which involves blowing up entire mountaintops, removing the coal, and shoveling the remaining rock into valleys below, completely burying streams (see for more information and a tour of the destruction in Google Earth). As Judy Bonds, a ninth generation West Virginian and coal miner’s daughter, puts it, “Even if you could get cotton candy to come out of the smoke stacks, my people’s blood is all over that coal.”

This nation must address the impacts of the full life cycle of coal, from mining to burning. The Times editorial notes that building new pulverized coal plants will lock the nation into another generation of massive carbon dioxide emissions. We should also note that building any kind of new coal plants without reforming our mining laws will lock Appalachia into another generation of devastated landscapes and communities.

Mary Anne Hitt
Executive Director
Appalachian Voices
Blacksburg, Virginia

Taming King Coal
The front page of this newspaper’s business section recently featured two articles about the world’s most plentiful fuel, coal. Written from different parts of the globe, they framed the magnitude of the task confronting international negotiators and the newly empowered Democrats in Congress who want to put the brakes on emissions of carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas.

One article pointed out that China will surpass the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide by 2009, a decade ahead of previous predictions. A big reason is the explosion in the number of automobiles, but the main reason is China’s ravenous appetite for coal, the dirtiest of all the fuels used to produce electricity. Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China, with enough capacity to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.

What’s frightening about this for those worried about the long-term consequences of warming is that nearly all of these plants are being built along traditional lines, burning pulverized coal to make electricity. And what’s sad about it is that there’s a much cleaner coal-burning technology available. Known as I.G.C.C. — for integrated gasification combined cycle — this cleaner technology coverts coal into a gas before it is burned.

These plants produce fewer of the pollutants that cause smog and acid rain than conventional power plants do. More important, from a global warming perspective, they also have the potential to capture and sequester greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide before they enter the atmosphere.

This new technology is not readily available in China, but it is available to utilities in the United States. Which brings us to the second article — an announcement by TXU, a giant Texas energy company, that it intends to build 11 new coal-fired power plants in Texas, plus another dozen or so coal-fired monsters elsewhere in the country. All told, this would be the nation’s largest single coal-oriented construction campaign in years.

Is TXU availing itself of the cleaner technology? No. TXU will use the old pulverized coal model. The company says the older models are more reliable. But the real reason it likes the older models is that they are easier to build, cheaper to run and, ultimately, much more profitable. So, like the Chinese, TXU is locking itself (and the country) into at least 50 more years of the most carbon-intensive technology around.

Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who will shortly assume command of the Senate environment committee, believes that we should impose a price on carbon emissions (as Europe has done) so that companies like TXU will begin to think about investing in cleaner technologies — technologies that China could then use in its power plants. The message from both Texas and China is that Ms. Boxer should get cracking.





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