On the Front Lines of the War on Coal

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51 Responses

  1. Dan Miller says:

    Love the post, but I want to quibble with your use of the word “cheap”. You can’t simply ignore the massive externality costs when accounting for coal’s cost. After all, my commute would be pretty cheap too if I hot-wired my neighbor’s car every day, or jumped the subway faregates, but we probably wouldn’t call it that–more like “criminal”. The same standard should apply to burning coal in quantity. Putting that much mercury and soot in the atmosphere is an aggressive act, and we can’t simply ignore the costs because they’re borne by society.Report

    • Guy in reply to Dan Miller says:

      Actually, I’d call those ways of getting to work “cheap”, on an individual level. It’s hardly the most salient characteristic, but it’s true. And coal is quite cheap if you don’t pay for externalities. Of course, the concept of an “externality” is, fundamentally, a difference between the net cost to you and the net cost to society.Report

    • You can’t simply ignore the massive externality costs…

      Absolutely. Hence the “if you don’t care about the by-products…”.Report

  2. EB says:

    Is there a reason that the fourth possibility was excluded (other than that it would require sig. government action?) That is, interpreting both “any”s as meaning “any” and regulating accordingly? This part:

    is just odd. How does the second part follow from the first?Report

    • EB in reply to EB says:

      Man, I always mess up the blockquotes. This is the part I meant: “The conservative faction, consisting of Alito and Thomas, said the correct interpretation is that “any” means “any” in both appearances of the word, and since there were at least tens of thousands of sources emitting more than 250 tons of CO2 per year, it follows that CO2 isn’t a pollutant that can be regulated.”Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to EB says:

        Yeah. The only sense I can make of that is, “Surely, Congress didn’t intend that.”Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to EB says:

        What Road Scholar said. All nine justices agreed that whatever Congress did mean, it didn’t mean anything that involved regulating tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of stationary sources.Report

  3. Mike Schilling says:

    Regular readers may remember my thoughts about Chief Justice Roberts: he’s all about protecting large corporate interests,

    Nobody seemed to understand at the time that umpires work for the owners.Report

  4. Patrick says:

    I just want to endorse this post.Report

  5. Road Scholar says:

    Thank-you, Michael. Excellent commentary and summation.Report

  6. zic says:

    I’m delighted coal is losing this war.

    I live in a beautiful place. Mountain streams and lakes abound; we are rich with water here in Western Maine. Our major industry is tourism, and it’s based on our natural resources.

    Every single Maine lake and stream has a fish warning; don’t eat more then 1 or 2 a month, don’t eat any if your under 12, pregnant, or have an impaired immune system. This is 100% because of mercury contamination from acid rain, most of it from coal-burning plants in the Ohio Valley. Burning coal there harms my community, here; their pollution soils my nest.

    One of the biggest hangups about getting coal out of the energy system is the job loss in coal-mining areas. Which peeves me to no end. Industries die all the time; they shift location. The tens of thousands of jobs in textiles that used to exist in Maine and Mass. are long since gone. The shoe industry is gone with the exception of New Balance. Paper makes more product now then it ever has, using a labor force 1/10 the size due to automation. Most furniture parts are now made in China, which has a thriving wood-processing industry that used to be here. I feel sorry for the people who’s lives are so economically disrupted, but that’s part of how free markets work. If we had a more liberal government that didn’t view people needing help as moochers, we could do a lot to help those people in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

    And just to add: Ed Muskie may have been one of the greatest senators this nation’s ever seen. The Clean Air and Water acts are two of the best pieces of legislation we’ve ever passed, despite their controversies; because the world we were creating before was a very nasty place. Let’s hope they’re enough to hold us through until we’re able to finally confront the problems of carbon pollution in a global manner. The flip side of the coin of a global economy is a global environment. We have reached the point where recognizing that Earth’s carrying capacity is limited has become critical. The war on coal is just a skirmish.Report

    • North in reply to zic says:

      Here here Zic. Nova Scotia suffered the same problems that your area does, for the same reasons with the added fury of the pollution coming from another country.
      I say scrap em all and put up nuclear plants in their place. Problem solved, plus it’d be cool!Report

    • trumwill in reply to zic says:

      We can’t refuse to implement benign regulations due to listing jobs, but jobs lost to regulations are not a good example of what “free markets” do.

      I’m always torn on environmental regulations that help but come at the expense of economic efficiency, though jobs themselves are only a small part of the picture.Report

      • Guy in reply to trumwill says:

        Another way of conceptualizing (environmental) externalities: environmental damage is an economic efficiency cost, more often than not, if we take a slightly broader meaning of “the economy” than “money, its movements, and directly correlated movements”.Report

      • zic in reply to trumwill says:

        This exactly, @guy

        Also, the process of being clean creates new jobs, jobs that make things better.

        And there is the physical costs of health care. Nearly every kid I know has asthma. That’s an incredible load of lost opportunity for those children.

        Not to mention the environmental problems with mountain top removal and health problems for miners caused by shaft miningReport

      • Saul Degraw in reply to trumwill says:

        Investing in the environment is a good way to ensure the future of humanity.

        One of the biggest problems climate change supporters face is that it is easy to ignore climate change because the real damage won’t be felt until we are long gone from this world.Report

      • zic in reply to trumwill says:


        Here in Maine (and much of New England) there’s are state-based tax incentive programs for tree growth. Each state will vary, Maine requires 10 acres minimum with some sort of forest-based income from it every 10 years. Landowners get a significant property tax reduction; the difference is paid to the towns by the state. A good half of Maine is in tree growth.

        I’d like to see programs like this expanded to include a carbon sequestering tax break — don’t cut the trees, let them grow and grab carbon. The Northeastern Forest absorbs more carbon every day then is produced on the Eastern Seaboard. Giving land owners incentive to grow trees benefits us; and there may be some good sense in letting landowners profit by just leaving their forests be instead of heavily working them.Report

      • Lyle in reply to trumwill says:

        Re Zic/s comment: At some point a forest absorbs less and less carbon, since trees start dieing off and rotting. I believe the statistics show that virgin forests are not as efficent in absorbing Carbon Dioxide as forests with some cutting. Now what you would do is either use the wood in building (which postpones the release of the carbon for a number of years), or bury the wood, so that it rots more slowly underground.Report

      • zic in reply to trumwill says:

        @lyle there’s a lot of research into that; a growing forest is actively absorbing carbon, there’s no doubt. I don’t think there’s much risk that the industrial forest here will ever stop being industrial; but it will probably be better if the demand was decreased, and more long-term sequestration happened. The hunger for paper and building supplies does not abate. I’m also seeing a growing demand for wood pellets for home heating; pellet systems are incredibly clean, and the resource is local. This is one such local business:


    • trumwill in reply to zic says:

      Jobs lost due to syraight competition from natural gas aren’t list due to the “War On Coal.”

      As for externalities, it depends on which ones we’re counting. Reducing externalities is one of the reasons to put the thumb on the scale, but I confess that I have become incredibly skeptical of our ability to address externalized costs.Report

      • trumwill in reply to trumwill says:

        That was to Nob’s comment below (and a bit to Guy’s above).Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to trumwill says:

        Pricing negative externalities isn’t easy, but the alternative is to simply absorb those negative costs as a whole society, which IMO works out to essentially creating an unofficial subsidy for the industries causing them.Report

      • trumwill in reply to trumwill says:

        I’m not suggesting we should never try to tax externalities. Just that in common dialogue it mostly seems to be tacked on as a justification to an already supported policy notion.

        Honestly, when an effort is really made to distribute costs appropriatly rather than to justify interventionfor its own sake, I can be quite supportive of the efforts.Report

      • zic in reply to trumwill says:

        I’m not suggesting we should never try to tax externalities. Just that in common dialogue it mostly seems to be tacked on as a justification to an already supported policy notion.

        It’s an ‘already supported policy notion’ because eastern states took it to court, all the way to the Supreme Court, multiple times and won. It’s not tacked on, it’s the reason we have the policy. It’s a policy because the EPA felt they had mandate from the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon pollution, and also won that battle in the Supreme Court. Legal battles over those externalities is part of what forced the change; natural gas provided an alternative.

        And I’m pretty sure within 20 or so years, we’ll be having similar battles of the water problems from natural gas extraction, it’s only a bridge fuel imo.Report

      • trumwill in reply to trumwill says:

        I think we mostly have the policy because we want cleaner air and rain and want that apart from the economic externalities of pollution.Report

      • zic in reply to trumwill says:

        No @trumwill , we have the policies because a whole lot of people fought for them because they wanted cleaner water and air.

        These were hard-won policies, and at least when it comes to down-wind communities, it was a decades-long battle.Report

      • trumwill in reply to trumwill says:

        That does not at all conflict with what I just said.Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to trumwill says:

        Thing is, I think the “existing policy preferences” stem from the results of years or even decades of uninterrupted negative externalities from some industries. So if there is an element of retributive regulation, it’s based on a foundation of free loading on the externalities side by industry to an extent that’s hard to measure outside of things like mortality statistics.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to trumwill says:

        Nob, I may not have been as clear on this as I thought (the hazards of participating on the road on a phone), but I am referring specifically to economic externalities. I don’t mean that a preference for clean water is trivial or that the pollution of water isn’t material. Quite the opposite. Those are beyond the realm of economic externalities because the losers cannot be made while by assessing the externality. We don’t want them to pay for the harm, we want the harm to stop. In the environmental laws we pass we don’t want polluters to pay for the economic damage of polluting the rivers, we want them to stop polluting. The economic harm is secondary.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to trumwill says:

        I’m not suggesting we should never try to tax externalities. Just that in common dialogue it mostly seems to be tacked on as a justification to an already supported policy notion.

        I think we mostly have the policy because we want cleaner air and rain and want that apart from the economic externalities of pollution.

        Those are economic externalities of pollution. I think you’re trying to split an invisible hair.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to trumwill says:

        James, the distinction I am looking for is between whether we are upset over the fact that they are doing it or upset that they are not bearing the financial cost of doing it.

        If internalizing the externalized financial burden of the activity wouldn’t be sufficient, then it’s not about the imposition of financial cost.Report

      • zic in reply to trumwill says:

        @trumwill I think my objection here is reducing the externalities to financial burdens. This feels very after-the-fact to me. It’s like saying it’s okay to cause the asthma, as long as the cost of burning the fuel covers the medical payments. I most specifically want an end to burning coal because of the direct harm I see it doing to the ecosystem where I live; and that includes people.

        Nobody wants to spend a life not able to climb a mountain in springtime because of asthma attacks; not able to ever pursue serious athletics, playing the saxophone. . . the externalities have a deep human cost. I won’t even begin to discuss other things I think are significant externalities, like the aggregated mercury in fish and it’s impact on loon populations. And I’d argue the right to eat fresh brook trout matters; that fishing clean water for food is a most traditional and sacred human activity.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to trumwill says:

        I’ve apparently done a pretty poor job of expressing myself here. I agree that the focus on economic costs is after the fact and that was very much what I was trying to get at.

        There is nothing wrong and much noble about wanting to address health consequences of pollution by reducing pollution. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t but it’s certainly valid reasoning. I was referring to discussions that turn toward specifically towards dollars and cents.

        Saving lives and improving health through environmental regulation is often a great way to spend money, so long as we agree that’s what we’re doing. Often I see pushback that because of (financial) externalities we’re not actually spending more money. That’s where I get skeptical. Sometimes we are, but I think the assessments are usually tacked on to support an existing argument for environment, life, and health.Report

  7. Nob Akimoto says:

    Is it really just a regulatory thing, though?

    While the cost of coal has remained relatively constant the cost of natural gas per million BTUs has gone down dramatically in the last 10 years. There’s been brief spikes up and down with natural gas, but on the whole gas has gotten to the point where, if you factor in externalities, is actually cheaper than coal to operate in many areas.

    And since we’re talking about overall economic cost, ignoring the externalities isn’t really an option. Coal has cheap marginal and fixed costs, but has enormous externality costs that must be paid in some form. Just because it doesn’t always show up on the electricity bill doesn’t mean it’s not any more expensive.Report

  8. Sam Wilkinson says:

    I’m reporting live from the actual frontline of the War On Coal, West Virginia, where I’m currently in a trench, and bullets are literally flying everywhere, mostly by people angry that my state’s stupid insistence on wedding itself to a single extraction industry more than 100 years might not end up paying off literally forever, which of course assumes that it ever paid off at all, which it probably didn’t. Signing off. Tell my wife I loved her.Report

    • Lyle in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      I suspect that if you went to Wyoming and eastern Montana you would find the same point of view.Wyoming bet big on coal with the first clean air act and power river coal (lower sulfur than eastern coal). Wyoming both exports coal and exports power from power plants. They have also been mining coal along the UP line since 1869. Now of course Wyoming does have the possibility of exporting wind energy.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Lyle says:

        Wyoming will almost certainly be a big wind energy exporter within a few years. The Phil Anschutz wind farms and the TransWest Express HVDC transmission line to carry that power to the southern tip of Nevada are into the final permitting phases. The business plan for both is to sell large amounts of power into the SoCal market.

        Wyoming will almost certainly also sell some amount of wind power to Colorado as well, which has a 30% renewable by 2020 mandate (for investor-owned utilities). Due to some fairly unique circumstances in Colorado, Xcel Energy (by far the largest utility) recently reported that it can buy wind power from new wind farms in the state for less than the cost to build and operate new NG-fired plants. Wyoming wind power will probably be even cheaper.Report

  9. Michael Cain says:

    And my thanks to the editorial staff for adding the nice musical touch at the end of the piece.Report

  10. Wardsmith says:

    What happens when the coal that used to power electric plants here under varying but generally improving environmental coda gets exported to China instead, with virtually No environmental restrictions?Report

    • greginak in reply to Wardsmith says:

      Is the answer that it leads to even worse pollution than Chinese cities already have? Pollution even they are getting concerned about.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Wardsmith says:

      You get a different equilibrium for coal production.

      People are buying less of it here means lower aggregate demand.

      If demand is rising in China, then that’s higher aggregate demand with everything else being equal.

      Granted, as demand goes down, price goes down, and China might buy more of it, but they’re also paying to ship it over there (and coal isn’t quite so energy dense that there’s much of a net win there, particularly if you’re also enforcing stricter controls on bunker fuel).

      Most of the externalities of coal will be dumped on China, since most of the effects are localized.

      But coal production, itself, will only go up if:

      Increase in Coal Demand (China) + Increase in Coal Demand (China, with America not buying coal) is greater than Increase in Coal Demand (China) + Demand in Coal (America).

      And, hum, further, overall pollution will go up if the amount of pollution due to lower regulatory enforcement in China Pc(China) is greater than the amount of pollution due to the status quo, or

      Pt(a) = Pc (Increase in Coal Demand (China) + Pc (Increase in Coal Demand (China, with America not buying coal) )

      Pt(b) = Pc (Increase in Coal Demand (China) + Pa (Demand for coal (America))

      And that, of course, is further offset by the pollution in China, because as pollution gets worse there, there’s a greater incentive to cut back on it (see: Los Angeles, 1973).

      But the answer to that question is probably, “Well, who knows?”Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Wardsmith says:

      Whether that can happen is a really interesting question. The bottleneck for expanding exports in that direction is the capacity of the West Coast ports’ coal-handling terminals. West Coast port cities’ responses to expansion permitting requests appear to me to range from dragging their feet to flat-out opposition. For example, handling, say, 10 million tons of coal annually produces a lot of dust, much of which “escapes” from the terminal (or rail cars feeding it). Cities are raising issues of air pollution (fine particulates), water pollution (leaching of heavy metals in runoff water), blockage of storm sewers as the dense coal dust accumulates down there, etc, etc. My guess is that there will be little expansion of the current exports to the west — but that’s just a guess.

      Another example of the “war” being waged by a handful of states, not the feds.Report

    • North in reply to Wardsmith says:

      The Chinese are beginning to get unhappy (at an official level- at the local level they’ve been upset for a good long while) about their air quality. I expect they’re going to turn more and more to non coal resources long before they start buying millions of tons of the stuff from the other side of the world.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Wardsmith says:

      With the world’s third largest amount of proven coal reserves, I doubt China’s going to start importing coal anytime soon.Report

  11. Lyle says:

    Here is a link to an interesting piece in Bloomberg : http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-07-01/renewables-to-get-most-of-7-7-trillion-power-investments.html

    It suggests that the rate of CO2 emissions will peak by 2030, and that by then fossil fuel will be 46% of electric generation from 64% today. The article suggests that solar will be fully cost competitive by 2020.with solar and wind going to 16% of power from 4% today. Coal plants will fade in the US and Europe, and growing only in Asia.
    Note that of the 7.7 trillion to be spent by 2030 5.5 will be on renewables. It is interesting that this comes from Bloomberg, not exactly a left wing outlet.Report