“Coal is the enemy of the human race”

Primary colours on wooden crates

The above wording is blogger David Roberts‘ attempt to summarize the relationship between humanity and coal in the 21st century. While many countries rely on it to produce electrical power and fuel other sorts of industry, there are huge negative externalities associated with it as a power source. These include:

  • Environmental destruction and contamination from coal mining.
  • Human health impacts from coal mining
  • Air pollutant emissions from coal burning, including particulate matter and mercury
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from coal burning
  • Toxic coal ash

A report from the US National Research Council found that American coal plants produce $62 billion per year in negative externalities, before climate impacts are taken into account.

Climate change is the biggest danger associated with coal. Firstly, coal produces a lot of CO2 per unit of useful energy. Secondly, coal reserves are so enormous that burning a significant fraction of what is left would essentially guarantee more than 2°C of mean warming globally, the level scientists and policy-makers have generally accepted as ‘dangerous.’

If it can prove safe, cheap, and effective, there may be a future for carbon capture and storage (CCS). Until that is demonstrated, we cannot assume that there is a future for coal as an energy source. Even before you take the climate impacts into consideration, the total costs are unfavourable compared to greener and renewable alternatives. Once climate change is factored in, the case against non-CCS coal becomes conclusive.

[16 February 2010] Now that I have a fuller understanding of the importance of not burning coal and unconventional fossil fuels, because of their cumulative climatic impact, I have launched a group blog on the topic: BuryCoal.com. Please consider having a look or contributing.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

16 thoughts on ““Coal is the enemy of the human race””

  1. Big Coal and child victims

    According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, child labor in coal mines continues in Pakistan, Mongolia, Nepal, Indonesia, and Colombia, where government agencies estimate that thousands of children are working in illegal mines. Last year, a Chinese blogger exposed the abuse of homeless children as coal haulers in China. In 2007, the BBC reported on child labor in coal mines of southern Kyrgyzstan near uranium dumps.

    Child labor in the coal mines is not the only abuse of children from irresponsible coal companies. As the Miami Herald reported last week, legal representatives on behalf of villagers in the Dominican Republic have filed a suit against the Virginia-based AES company for birth defects related to coal ash dumping.

    And today, the AP is reporting that the School Board Authority in West Virginia is now hedging on seeking funds for Marsh Fork Elementary School in West Virginia, which infamously sits below a massive coal slurry impoundment, and where kids play near toxic coal dust silos. Here’s a clip on retired coal miner Ed Wiley about the Marsh Fork school situation:

  2. Lawsuit accuses Virginia power company of poisoning Dominican community with toxic coal ash

    A civil lawsuit filed last week in state court in Delaware charges Arlington, Va.-based AES Corp.—one of the world’s largest power companies—with illegally dumping 160 million pounds of toxic coal ash waste onto beaches in the Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic, leading to serious health problems for nearby residents.

    Filed by a team of attorneys from law firms in New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, the suit alleges that between 2003 and 2004, AES Corp. and its subsidiaries dumped 100 million pounds of coal ash on the beach near the small village of Arroyo Barril and another 60 million pounds in the Port of Manzanillo near Montecristi—and that serious health problems resulted:

    “Since the dumping, babies have been born with severe birth defects including missing limbs, missing organs, cranial malformations, and gastrointestinal deformities. Some of these children have died as a result of their injuries. A failed Siamese twin with two heads died shortly after birth. Many women have suffered miscarriages at various stages of their pregnancies. Today, in addition to the severe birth defects, men, women, and children of this proud and struggling community continue to suffer with respiratory illnesses and skin rashes.”

    The attorneys say half of the 42 nearby residents tested had unsafe blood levels of arsenic, a major contaminant of concern in coal ash. There is evidence that inhaled or ingested arsenic can injure the fetus.

  3. We make a series of deals, including things like mandatory emissions reductions in rich states, cash and technology transfers, and technical assistance.

    It will be a challenge, but there is reason to hope the Chinese government will cooperate. They seem increasingly willing to recognize how destabilizing climate change could be.

  4. Toll in Chinese Mine Explosion Rises to 104

    Published: November 22, 2009

    HONG KONG — A gas explosion at a coal mine in northeastern China early Saturday killed at least 104 people, China’s worst mine disaster in nearly two years, Chinese official media said Monday.

    Since an announcement on Saturday that 42 were dead and 66 were missing, no further further survivors of the powerful underground explosion have been found, and more than 60 bodies have been located. At least four miners were still missing early Monday, the official Xinhua news agency said.

    The explosion took place at the Xinxing Coal Mine in Hegang City, in Heilongjiang province, according to Xinhua. At least 29 miners were hospitalized, including 6 with serious injuries.

    Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang visited the site on Saturday afternoon to inspect the rescue effort, while President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao both “made instructions on the rescue work,” Xinhua said. Expressions of concern by top offiicials after mine disasters have become frequent in recent years, as deadly accidents have continued despite repeated efforts to improve safety.

  5. Clean Coal


    Sasha Mackler, Research Director for the National Commission on Energy Policy, argues that low-carbon coal technology should be used as a first step in addressing climate change.

    # Point 1: Clean coal is a necessary part of fighting climate change.
    # Point 2: We don’t have time for major shifts in energy policy.
    # Point 3: The technology is right here, right now.


    Roberts, Climate and Energy Writer for Grist.org, argues that emphasizing carbon dioxide emissions is a narrow view that ignores the connection between humans and the planet.

    # Counterpoint 1: Coal is in short supply, expensive and cannot be made clean.
    # Counterpoint 2: We don’t have time for capital-intensive industrial mega-projects.
    # Counterpoint 3: New energy sources are cheaper than trying to clean coal.

  6. Indonesia’s coal rush
    Sooty success

    Dec 10th 2009 | JAKARTA
    From The Economist print edition
    Rising demand from China and India is stoking Indonesia’s exports of coal

    FOR power stations on the coast of China, it is often cheaper to import coal by sea from Indonesia than from mines in the interior. The same goes for many Indian consumers. Japan and South Korea, both big importers, are also close—putting Indonesia at the heart of an Asian coal boom.

    The majority of electricity in China, India and several other Asian countries comes from burning coal. Demand for the stuff has grown rapidly, along with the region’s economies. It is likely to continue to do so, despite environmental concerns, because coal is abundant and cheap. Last month the International Energy Agency predicted global demand for coal would increase by 1.9% a year until 2015, outpacing all other fossil fuels except natural gas.

  7. Oregon To Go Coal-Free By 2020
    Posted by Eric de Place
    01/15/2010 09:35 AM

    Huge news from Oregon today: Portland General Electric is planning to shut down the state’s only coal plant by 2020, years earlier than expected. From the Oregonian:

    Based on its analysis of carbon and natural gas prices, however, PGE maintains that a 2020 shutdown would be the low-cost, least-risk plan for utility ratepayers and shareholders. Under the existing plan, both face the risk of making the huge investment to control haze causing pollution – which does nothing to control the plant’s carbon emissions — then seeing the plant close anyway if global warming legislation or a carbon tax makes its output prohibitively expensive.

    Shutting down PGE’s Boardman coal plant would decrease Oregon’s carbon emissions by 8 percent when calculated on an electricity-generation basis. That plant is the single largest source of emissions in Oregon, so the news today marks a very significant milestone in the Northwest’s movement toward smart climate policy.

  8. “Coal is our future” is a particularly discouraging one.

    But you can generate offensive claims about, (and these I’ve tried):

    Women, Men, Wolves, Dogs, Cats (specifically, that cats are jerks!), Kangaroos, Feminists, Vitamins, God, Wine, and Cheese.

    My favorite for Cheese is “Cheese is burning me” with 6,240,000 results.

  9. “Coal burning at power plants is the greatest source of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. It is also the source most susceptible to control.”

    Hansen, James. Storms of My Grandchildren. p.2 (hardcover)

  10. “My addition to Patel’s list would remedy a glaring, disheartening omission. How could this not occur to someone specifically contemplating “cheaponomics”? Say it with me now: coal. From mining to transportation, washing, combustion, and post-combustion waste disposal, coal is an “assault on human health,” as the Physicians for Social Responsibility put it in a comprehensive recent study. (Others have called it “the enemy of the human race.”)

    A study this year from the National Research Council, “Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use,” found that coal-fired power plants impose $62 billion of health costs a year in the U.S. A 2005 analysis for the Ontario Ministry of Energy entitled “Cost Benefit Analysis: Replacing Ontario’s Coal-Fired Electricity Generation” (PDF) found that the direct health impacts of coal alone (to say nothing of climate change and environmental remediation) add a whopping 8 cents per kilowatt-hour to the cost. That puts it well above the price of its competitors. Neither of these studies took into account the impacts of mountaintop removal mining, combustion ash disposal, mercury emissions, or damage from climate change, all of which would push the price tag even higher.

    And here’s the thing: each dollar invested in coal produces more external costs than the dollar before. The trend lines are all in the wrong direction. Even if carbon pollution can be handled by sequestration, refitted coal plants will need to burn more coal to get the same amount of power—that means more devastated mountains, polluted streams, asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, strokes, and mercury poisoning of pregnant mothers and fetuses.

    In contrast, the costs of renewable energy technology are steadily declining as innovation, manufacturing efficiencies, and economies of scale increase. In short, it’s becoming clear that only a steady diet of federal subsidies—and maybe not even that—can protect the coal industry from a “perfect storm of competitive technology, stricter regulation and growing obsolescence.””

  11. The University of Utah has some information on mercury emissions from coal burning:

    “Coal-fired electricity plants are the largest source of mercury pollution, releasing 48 tons of mercury each year in the US. This pollution would cease if coal-generated electricity were replaced with wind power.

    Mercury is an irreversible toxin that causes serious effects including mental deficiency and is especially damaging to children and the developing fetus. The EPA reports that one sixth of pregnant women in the USA have mercury levels above their safety threshold and that 630,000 US newborns had unsafe levels of mercury in their blood. Mercury Threat to Fetus

    Mercury released by coal-fired plants circulates as vapor before settling over a wide range. The mercury tends to accumulate in marine environments, especially in the larger fish that are an important source of food for human consumption. In many ways fish are an ideal food for children and pregnant women, but because of mercury pollution the FDA now recommends against eating several types of fish, and contamination of many other species is a serious concern.”

    Too bad their legislature is dancing to a different tune.

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