King Coal has been vindicated. After more than a century's reign of spewing out carbon, chopping down mountain-tops, and blackening lungs, the former despot has finally cleaned up his act. Or so he'd have you believe. Cough, cough.
For Joe the Plumber-types, working hard to put dinner on the table, keeping up with politics and the news, and standing proud for the U.S.A., there's not much information out there indicating otherwise. In fact, 2008 has seen a tidal wave of advertising and media touting "clean coal."
Unfortunately, to call today's coal "clean" requires a handful of mind-erasing psycho-somethings and a magic carpet ride to Fairyland. It's true — the potential to burn coal far cleaner than in decades past is now here. Scrubbers, injectors, activators, and a host of other doohickeys and thingamabobs can be installed in smokestacks to trap and remove mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other toxins before they muck up the air we breathe. But the best devices are expensive and only in use at a few power plants across the country.
And where pollution is inherent, there's a give and take. When you capture those pollutants out of the air, they still exist and need to be disposed of. Oftentimes, that means storing it in collecting ponds that can end up polluting rivers and groundwater. And that doesn't even take into account the horrible effect that strip-mining has had on southern Appalachia, or the ecological impact of transporting mountains of coal around the nation.
But don't worry your pretty little head. Coal is clean. Cigarettes are healthy. And the king is always right.
It may have been the music and food that brought them out, but the 5,000-some-odd attendees at September's Green Fair in Marion Square had the opportunity to receive a good dose of enviro-knowledge from the dozens of booths and presentations on display. One booth, however, raised the eyebrows of organizers, speakers, and attendees alike.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy (ACCCE; formerly called Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, or ABEC) purchased a booth for the same price as any local exhibitor, and from there passed out hundreds of water bottles, hats, fans, and T-shirts with slogans promoting "clean coal."
That phrase also made many appearances during the presidential campaign — 10 times in the vice presidential debate alone.
"My record for 25 years has supported clean coal technology," said Democratic candidate Joe Biden, calling for further investments. That was after Sarah Palin called him out for a campaign comment in which he said there was no such thing as clean coal. (Palin even dubbed clean coal an "alternative fuel.")
In the days immediately before the election, clean coal became a last-minute hot topic, when President-elect Barack Obama stated, "So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It's just that it will bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted."
Obama supports cap-and-trade carbon taxing that would generate funds to invest in solar, wind, and biodiesel. But his "bankrupt" comment was jumped on by the McCain campaign as a direct threat to one of America's oldest and most historically powerful industries. The National Mining Association issued this statement in response: "Destroying the coal industry would break America's energy backbone."
In truth, Obama has called himself a "big proponent of clean coal technology," and ACCCE's website, AmericasPower.org, recently featured our new president's mug alongside that quote and a congratulatory note from the industry-backed group.
So where is this clean coal that even the "most liberal" senator ever is touting? Who knows?
Right now, not even the fanciest smokestack scrubbers can capture carbon dioxide and slow down global warming, although plans exist on paper for "carbon-sequestering" projects which would capture those emissions and store them in the ground. Unfortunately, the money to make all of this happen — a $1.5 billion FutureGen project to accomplish this — was scrapped from the federal budget earlier this year.
And no matter how clean you burn it, coal still has to get from the ground to the furnace.
470 Missing Mountains
Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel/ And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land/
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken/ Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man/
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County/ Down by the Green River where Paradise lay/
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking/
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
—John Prine, "Paradise"
The easy-to-get coal in Appalachia is long gone. Advances in mining technology, however, mean that with fewer workers (and jobs), we can still haul plenty of black gold out of the earth.
Mountaintop removal mining involves clear cutting a forested hillside, blowing the top off the ridges, and scraping the surface of the ground away to get to coal. The industry, in classic euphemistic fashion, likes to call mountain-top removal "contour mining" or "surface mining."
About a third of America's coal is currently mined in the mountains from Pennsylvania down to Virginia (377 million tons in 2007), and a third of that is extracted via this method. Four hundred and seventy mountains have been blown up, destroying at least 750,000 acres of hardwood forests and 1,000 miles of waterways. It's a relatively cheap and easy way of mining, and it's part of what powers our televisions, refrigerators, and laptops in the Lowcountry.
Ironically, environmental concerns helped drive the coal industry to adopt mountain-top removal mining. The lower-sulfur deposits of West Virginia and Kentucky create less acid rain than those farther north, but these deposits are too shallow to send workers down into. The solution? Blow up a mountain, shovel the top layer into the valley, and extract the coal.
Over the years, this process has been cleaned up a bit, most notably in 2002 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began requiring companies to restore streams into viable ecosystems. Unfortunately, a 25-year-old prohibition on dumping into mountain streams was repealed in mid-October of this year, ringing in a funeral dirge for many mountain creeks.
"Coal remains an important part of West Virginia's economy, but it's also a dead end," says Matt Wasson, executive director of Appalachian Voices, a group working against strip mining. "We have been mining it for hundreds of years, and the easiest to access coal reserves are mined out. Every year, mountaintop removal mines blow up more tons of our mountains to get fewer tons of coal, causing irreparable damage to our communities, streams, and the most diverse forests on the continent."
Leah Arnold, the south region communications director of ACCCE, says that when their group refers to coal as being clean, they only mean the energy production part of the process. That said, the majority of ACCCE members are not power utilities, but mining, trucking, and train companies — precisely where the least progress has been made to clean up coal.
Is S.C. Increasingly Part of the Problem?
State-owned power utility Santee Cooper placed itself smack in the middle of the coal debate in 2006, when they announced a plan to build a new 1,320 megawatt, $2.2 billion coal-fired power plant in Kingsburg, near Florence. Although the permit they're seeking is for two units, they claim they only intend to build one with a 660 megawatt capacity. Santee Cooper says the Pee Dee Energy Campus is necessary to meet a 500 megawatt shortfall its customers will face by 2015. Without it, the company argues that businesses will suffer, as brownouts occur on high usage days.
Coinciding with Santee Cooper's efforts to expand its coal operations has been a public relations campaign to convince customers that the utility is indeed green. In the last year and a half, the company has spent in excess of $1.5 million with Rawle Murdy, a Charleston-based marketing communications firm, according to documents obtained from Santee Cooper via the Freedom of Information Act.
Rawle Murdy has created websites, pamphlets, billboards, and internet and television ads promoting Santee Cooper Green, a conservation and renewable energy initiative adopted by the utility. Many of these PR bits are commendable, including a series of "Powerful Tips" commercials that educate consumers on simple energy-saving practices. And most of the PR includes the reminder that, "even with our ongoing initiatives, we still need more power."
Alongside Santee Cooper's energy conserving PR initiatives are comments from Santee Cooper CEO Lonnie Carter down-playing the dangers of mercury in the state's waterways, and a Rawle Murdy designed website, TheRealStoryOnMercury.com, which shrugs off any alleged responsibility for S.C.'s mercury problem. And lest we forget, in 2004, the company paid a $2 million fine for reportedly releasing illegal amounts of pollutants into the air at its Georgetown coal plant and expanding its Cross Station plant on Lake Moultrie without the approval of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Santee Cooper currently gets 78 percent of its 6,300 megawatt production capacity from coal. Charleston's other major energy provider, SCE&G, gets about 45 percent from coal; the rest comes from nuclear, hydroelectric, and natural gas. Although Santee Cooper announced a goal this year of generating 40 percent of their power from non-greenhouse gas emitting sources by 2020, adding 660 megawatts of coal power five years from now may not ease that transition.
Any new coal plant is required to use the "Maximum Achievable Control Technology" (MACT) — basically the best available pollution controls. Southern Environmental Law Center attorney John Suttles argues that Santee Cooper hasn't done this, citing recently approved plants in Virginia and Pennsylvania that burn waste coal (a by-product of the mining process far dirtier than regular coal) yet emit less mercury.
"Santee Cooper's argument that the cost [of additional controls] doesn't justify the added expense ignores a fundamental requirement of the Clean Air Act's hazardous pollution provisions," says Suttles. According to the attorney, without the devices used at the Virginia plant, mercury emissions from waste coal could be eight times higher than at Pee Dee. "There is no reason these devices cannot be employed to control emissions [in S.C.] and they should do as well or better ... Santee Cooper would only need to burn half the coal to generate the same amount of electricity and the coal would have far lower mercury content."
Company spokeswoman Laura Varn says it's "not as easy as it sounds to piecemeal things together." According to Varn, the mercury controls on the other plants are designed specifically for waste coal.
She points out that the Pee Dee plant is a "super-critical" design, which extracts energy more efficiently. After examining cleaner "ultra-critical" and gasification techniques, the company determined that those are presently fringe technologies.
When it comes to the Pee Dee plant, which will reportedly burn an estimated 410 tons of pulverized coal every hour and release nine million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, Santee Cooper is requesting a permit to emit 93 pounds of mercury each year. That's a reduction from the utility's other plants, but the project is planned for an area which has been dubbed the "mercury triangle" for the high levels of the heavy metal in the area's waterways and fish. DHEC issued Santee Cooper a draft air quality permit last year.
Santee Cooper is awaiting that final document, as well as a 401 Water Quality Certification and an Environmental Impact Statement from the U.S. Corps of Engineers, allowing them to fill in 100 acres of wetlands. DHEC's issuance of the water permit would state that the plant won't worsen existing problems in local waters. Santee Cooper is anticipating litigation and an appeals process. As a result, Varn says construction may not begin for at least two years. During that time, a Democrat-controlled Washington could feasibly spearhead the beginning of a cap-and-trade carbon emissions program, something that is already underway on a voluntary basis in 23 states; South Carolina isn't one of them.
Last month, India's coal minister and a lead coal executive toured Appalachia, looking for new sources to fund the plants their country is building on a biweekly basis. Those factors and China's growing appetite for coal could mean our "cheap and abundant" energy source skyrockets in cost. Santee Cooper does not currently have a back-up plan to building the Pee Dee plant.
"I guess we'd have to see what happens when it comes up," says Varn, pointing out that nuclear power is their long-term goal, but that new plant won't be ready by their projected energy deficit in 2015. And a "Myth vs. Reality" fact sheet Santee Cooper distributes states, "We operate based on existing legislation, not on proposals."
A State of Coal
No coal is mined in South Carolina, but plenty comes through our door. The state's utilities spent a collective $740 million on coal in 2004.
Meanwhile, energy transportation company Kinder Morgan received a permit last week to double the size of their coal pile along the Cooper River in North Charleston. The Texas-based spin-off, headed by former Enron executives, has received its share of press in its expansion efforts, with neighborhood residents and boaters in the docks' vicinity persistently complaining about coal dust in the air. After $1.5 million in dust suppressing improvements were made, DHEC gave Kinder Morgan approval to expand. The coal Kinder Morgan imports comes from South America, while Santee Cooper purchases 100 percent of their coal from domestic, Appalachian sources.
Because wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear power don't require a mile-long train of coal to fuel a plant every day, they're obviously far more environmentally friendly than coal when it comes to transportation. It doesn't hurt that they're emission free as well (minus the problem of nuclear waste).
Many coal opponents believe that conservation and efficiency alone can meet the projected needs of South Carolina energy users until more environmental friendly facilities are viable. They say there's no need for a new coal plant. However, Santee Cooper says that's not the case.
A statement from the utility's board of directors says that conservation and renewables can meet our electricity needs, just not right now. "The easy decision would have been to not build the facility," states O.L. Thompson, the board chair. "Had we done that, we would not be serving as leaders in fulfilling our obligation to meet the state's growing energy needs."
Santee Cooper's PR efforts have had a two-pronged approach — raise the visibility of the green campaign and tout the need for a new plant. In the Myrtle Beach area last year, they even put up billboards featuring frowning faces on electrical sockets, with captions like, "A future without enough electricity is scary." Other Rawle Murdy created media warns of a "crisis in our economy" if brownouts occur, resulting in jobs lost, expansion plans cancelled, businesses moving out, and "young people leaving home."
Although Santee Cooper is not a member of ACCCE, the company's campaign has benefited from the $35 million the ACCCE has spent around the country promoting coal. ACCCE (under its old name, ABEC) even sponsored one of the presidential debates, with "clean coal" ads appearing during commercial breaks. No questions on global warming were asked during that presidential face-off.
Apart from impassioned pleas at public hearings and environmental group-sponsored events, citizen input about the Pee Dee plant has been relatively quiet. But as the project looms closer to reality, that could change.
Activists picketed outside a public hearing on the plant last month, some of whom have been arrested for their actions protesting coal plants in Virginia, Kansas, and North Carolina. Al Gore has also recently said that, "We've reached the stage where it's time for civil disobedience to prevent construction of new coal-fired power plants that do not have sequestration" — strong words from a former vice-president.
An August 2007 survey, commissioned by Santee Cooper, found that 63 percent of those questioned had major doubts about building a new plant when considering the statement that global warming is the greatest threat to our planet, and that coal burning power plants exacerbate that. The same percentage expressed doubt again when recognizing that South Carolina lags far behind the rest of the country in energy conservation.
To Santee Cooper's credit, the company was the first utility in the state to offer renewable energy, and the firm has established pilot programs at colleges and public schools to study the feasibility of wind and solar power. Meanwhile, 85 percent of their ash by-product, a major water contamination problem at some plants, is recycled into wall-board or cement — much of it was used in the Cooper River Bridge. And Santee Cooper doesn't claim the Pee Dee plant as a "clean coal" plant, although they've used the term in their PR campaign.
Whatever the validity of "clean coal," the black stuff is responsible for 50 percent of the electricity generated in the United States. A notion of a world with no coal is, as Barack Obama called it last month, "an illusion." But Obama has called for "rigorous standards for allowable emissions," thus letting the market adapt to the most appropriate energy sources with new costs for carbon emissions in place.
ACCCE's website states, "Thanks to an abundance of coal, combined with American ingenuity and advanced technologies, we don't have to choose between affordable energy and improved air quality."
The possibility of cleaner air may be the case, and a new super critical plant in S.C. would be the cleanest coal facility in the state. But none of the plant's nine million tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions would be caught, and 36 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases already come from coal. With carbon, transportation, and destructive mining all taken into account, is making the air a bit cleaner really making coal "clean?"
State-owned utility Santee Cooper says a new coal-fired power plant is needed to meet an energy deficit they anticipate five years from now. Although the plant would reduce mercury emissions to levels below those at their other coal plants, the Kingsburg location is at the center of an area recognized for high concentrations of the heavy metal in rivers and waterways. Signs warn fisherman that many species can be unsafe to eat, and plant opponents worry that any new emissions will exacerbate the problem. Santee Cooper says those fears are unwarranted and overblown.
The number of coal-fired power plants (SCE&G and Santee Cooper combined) on the Lowcountry's electrical grid; all buy coal from mountain-top removal mines in Appalachia
The number of mountains destroyed so far in Appalachia by mountain-top removal mining
The number of acres deforested in Appalachia for coal mines
The number of short tons of coal produced at U.S. mines in 2007
The cost of a short ton of coal on Dec. 1, 2008 (up from $30 in 2000)
The number of U.S. states that mine coal; S.C. does not
The amount spent by S.C. utilities on coal in 2004
The number of tons per hour of coal that would be burned at Santee Cooper's proposed Pee Dee Energy Campus
The number of tons of carbon dioxide that would be emitted at the proposed Pee Dee plant annually
The number of pounds of annual mercury emissions requested in the permit for the Pee Dee plant
The percentage of Santee Cooper's power that currently comes from coal
The percentage of power Santee Cooper hopes to generate from non-greenhouse gas-producing sources by 2020