Coal: still the lump in our stockings

When I was a child, if I didn’t behave at Christmastime, I was threatened with something like this from my mother, “If you don’t shape up, young man, you’ll wind up with coal in your stocking.” In those days, many homes had a coal furnace in the basement, and chunks of coal were plentiful.

Today, that’s an antiquated image. Coal’s use in the home has been in decline for decades, and it’s on a downward trend for use in power generation as well. Fifteen years ago, it powered half the country; today, it powers just 30 percent of our electricity, as utilities switch to cheaper, and more readily available, natural gas.

Yet the Trump administration clings to coal despite its declining use — and this fact: Coal continues to be the nation’s top source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emission, a major cause of global warming. Last year, 35 percent of the country’s CO2 emissions came from the burning of fossil fuels for electric power generation; the lion’s share of that — 68 percent— came from coal, compared to 30 percent for natural gas.

While the Trump administration minimizes the importance of climate change and implements policies that directly further it, 13 federal agencies this month issued an exhaustive Climate Science Special Report finding that people, in part through the burning of coal, are most likely responsible for the undisputed rise in global temperatures; 16 of the last 17 years have been the hottest on record worldwide.

It turns out that some of the coal-related emissions can be significantly reduced with readily available pollution controls, but most U.S. coal plants have not yet installed the necessary technologies.

In August 2015, President Barack Obama unveiled the Clean Power Plan (CCP), which was aimed at combating global warming and set target emission standards for coal plants to reduce CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by 32 percent before 2030. The Environmental Protection Agency assumed utilities could reduce emissions by replacing coal plants with alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar farms.

But the EPA recently announced that Scott Pruitt, its chief under the Trump administration, signed a measure to repeal the CCP. When asked about the repeal, Mr. Pruitt stated that the Obama administration had exceeded its legal authority in an effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

President Trump’s futile obsession with saving the coal industry doesn’t seem to even make economic sense. There is much evidence suggesting that even with a repeal of the CCP, coal power will continue to decline. Many utilities have already begun to replace coal power with cleaner natural gas, solar and wind power, which provide better cost benefits and ultimately cleaner air. If the coal industry is doomed anyway, doesn’t it make more sense to place concerted effort in helping the workers of the coal industry transition into other jobs, maybe in related businesses such as solar?

If burning fossil fuels for energy doesn’t make moral or economic sense, and the industry is waning, why the obsession with keeping the coal industry afloat?

The Federal Elections Commission reports that fossil fuel companies and their executives raised over $106 million for President Trump’s inauguration. In return for their investment, the coal industry apparently received rolled-back emissions limits on coal-fired power plants and the reopening of coal mining on public lands, which included low-cost leases.

It’s time to stop putting individual interests before that of the planet, and the collective human race. Otherwise, we’ll be looking at a lot worse than the prospect of a lump of coal in our stockings.

A.J. Russo (Dr.a.j.russo@gmail.com) is a resident of Mount Airy and visiting assistant professor of biology at Drew University; his opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

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