The Grand Bargain
The question "What good is it?" could also be leveled at any policy recommendation that encourages more coal mining over the next century. Widespread adoption of coal-fueled IGCC power plants coupled with carbon sequestration might lead to good things for the atmosphere, but what does it portend for the earth's already scarred surface? The coal-mining industry has changed dramatically over the past three decades. It has, in general, moved from the iconic shaft mines of Pennsylvania and Appalachia, manned by legions of black-smudged, pick-wielding men, to enormous surface mines in western states, where relatively few laborers operate the largest machines on earth, such as the dragline excavators I saw working the lignite beds of North Dakota. About 20 of these super-mines, most in the Powder River Basin, now produce more than 400 million tons of coal a year, about 40 percent of all U.S. production.
While these mines can to some extent be remediated, the same cannot be said of mountaintop removal, a method of surface mining practiced in the eastern United States, which causes grotesque and permanent damage. Approximately 600 Appalachian strip mines, including mountaintop removal operations, unearth 145 million tons of coal a year, about 15 percent of the nation's annual total. In mountaintop removal, draglines, dozers, and huge dump trucks blast and scrape off summits and push the displaced earth into the valleys below. The procedure creates an eerily unrelieved, amputated landscape, filled with muddy stumps, acid mine runoff, and piles of toxic coal sludge.
David Hawkins, NRDC's clean-coal visionary, is acutely aware of the downsides of coal mining. "Even if some form of grand bargain were struck with the coal industry on dealing with the downstream effects of carbon emissions," he says, "the environmental community is not going to walk away from concerns about the upstream side, where the coal comes out of the ground.
"As far as I know, it's a matter of economics that causes people to decapitate mountains rather than mine the coal in a less abusive fashion. So if we're going to use coal, we should pay the price that is needed in order to avoid ruining the landscape. The way to do it," he suggests, "is to have a policy that says, 'Here are the rules.' And the coal industry will say, 'Well, those rules mean it's going to cost more.' And the answer has to be, 'Yup, that's right: Here are the rules.' "
The coal industry's response to a Hawkins-style vision of responsible coal use is mixed at best. On the bright side, the United Mine Workers of America voiced its acceptance of the need for restrictions on carbon emissions last December, when it endorsed the report of the National Commission on Energy Policy. (The report recommends phasing in a mandatory cap on carbon emissions based on a gradual reduction in the carbon intensity of the U.S. economy, starting in 2010.)
Kennecott Energy, the nation's third-largest coal producer, has also acknowledged the severity of the global-warming problem. Kennecott is one of 10 private-sector parties that have volunteered to participate in the FutureGen project, pledging $20 million. But Kennecott is an exception in the coal industry. "The other major coal companies are staunchly opposed to anything that has to do with carbon management of any kind, under any circumstances," says Rusty Mathews. "They're not willing to acknowledge yet that there's some writing on the wall." Only a groundswell of public and political pressure to end the era of pulverized-coal power plants seems likely to budge the industry from its intransigence.
Can we hand down to future generations a world that is not irreversibly compromised by a failure to accept the consequences of our choices? There may be no single answer. Ingenious ways of avoiding the worst consequences of coal combustion, such as IGCC and carbon sequestration, are necessary parts of the solution, but they are not sufficient by themselves. "There are three big tools in the global-warming toolbox: efficiency, renewable energy, and carbon capture and storage for fossil fuels," David Hawkins says. "We need to use all of them. It will take all three to put together national and global recipes that can bring the problem of global warming under control."