Politicians of all stripes like to tout the benefits of clean coal, a catch-all phrase for a host of technologies aimed at reducing the environmental impact of coal. But while the alliteration sounds nice in a campaign speech, “clean coal” is more myth than reality.
Beyond the technological hurdles, it’s critical to remember that coal is dirty in a whole host of ways—from the moment it’s pulled out of the ground to the moment we use it to turn on the lights. Here are a few reasons to raise an eyebrow at the promise of clean coal:
1. The technology doesn’t exist yet. Few technologies exist today that actually make coal cleaner. Take carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), wherein power plants trap carbon emissions and then bury them deep in the ground to keep them from reaching the atmosphere. China has gotten a lot of press from investing heavily in CCS research, but at this stage it’s just that: research. Other solutions, from gasifying coal to scrubbing out toxic minerals, are even further from real world use.
2. Even if the technology was there, the numbers don’t add up. The larger reason clean coal has not been a breakout technology is that it’s just not economically viable. In general, most polluters pollute because it’s cheaper and easier than spending money to make their operations environmentally friendly. The coal industry is no different. All current ideas about clean coal technology are expensive. They’re expensive to research, expensive to install, and companies won’t make more profit for all that money spent. Economists just don’t think the numbers will ever work to make clean coal technology thrive on its own in the free market.
3. That means we’d need government action. The coal industry doesn’t pay for the environmental damage they cause: we do (with taxes) for clean up and health problems from pollution. It’s a classic example of why we need the government to intervene and to make companies pay for the messes they create. We know it works. Power plant scrubbers, which successfully curbed acid rain, were only installed nationwide thanks to a legal mandate.
We could incentivize reducing pollution through a carbon tax or adopt a cap-and-trade system. But not only is Congress generally unwilling to take up big issues or pass many laws, climate is near the bottom of Republicans’ priority list. Meaning, while coal gets pollution subsidies, no one gets help cleaning up.
4. Burning coal produces lots of carbon emissions. This is the easy one. Of all the fossil fuels, coal is the worst for climate change, emitting 1.3 times more carbon pollution than oil and twice as much as natural gas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions calculations. Coal burning contributes one-third of the U.S. total carbon emissions.
5. Burning coal creates other kinds of deadly pollution. Beyond carbon emissions, burning coal produces lots of other toxic chemicals and particles that harm human health, including soot and smog, a leading cause of asthma. In 2011, Earthjustice found that smog causes an estimated 35,700 premature deaths every year and 2.7 million missed school and work days. While some clean coal technologies target these health hazards, there’s no guarantee whatever clean coal technology gets adopted will have any impact on these toxic and dangerous pollutants.
6. The coal industry produces industrial waste too. In 2008, a large retainer pond operated by a coal processing facility ruptured, spilling 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash into the community of Kingston, Tennessee, eventually covering 300 acres of surrounding land. A similar disaster happened again outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2011 when a We Energy coal ash pond ruptured and 2,500 cubic yards of coal ash spilled into Lake Michigan.
These disasters are a reminder that burning coal isn’t the only problem: every step of the coal production process creates pollution and waste that harms the environment. Clean coal, generally, promises little, if anything, in the way of addressing these other impacts.
7. Mountaintop removal mining. Among the most controversial and tragic mining methods is mountaintop removal, a practice dating from the 1970s where companies use dynamite to literally blow the tops of mountains in Appalachia, not only destroying a landscape 500 million years in the making, but gumming up freshwater streams and even sending massive boulders careening down mountainsides and into communities. Clean coal technology doesn’t even pretend to fix mining processes like this that have huge environmental impacts.
8. Mining coal is dangerous and unhealthy. Beyond harming the environment, coal mining is a dirty and dangerous process for workers. Large scale disasters, like the explosion in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010, grab headlines and spotlight the dangers miners face every day. But beyond these catastrophic events, coal mining is a devastating profession for personal health. Small, dark and dusty mines leave lifers with severe back problems and cancers that often end careers and lives too early. A study identifying the least healthy places in America found that the top four were in coal country. Grundy County, Virginia, an area dependent on coal, was dubbed the sickest town in America, with more than 20 percent of people living on disability, many from mining related injuries.
9. Clean coal doesn’t address the coal plants we have now. Even if clean coal became the norm for new electricity generation tomorrow, that doesn’t address the hundreds of existing coal-fired power plants already in operation. Lots of proposed technology would likely necessitate an entirely new processing system. That does nothing to impact emissions from what we’ve already built. If we want to fix what we’ve already got, we’ll need to rely on activists, like the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign that’s helped close nearly 200 dirty power plants, not clean coal technology alone.
10. Coal is still finite. No matter how much we sanitize coal, the simple truth is we can’t make more of it. Coal may be, as the World Energy Institute describes, the “most abundant” of fossil fuels, but it’s not endless.
Rather than invest significant research and design efforts into finding technology to make a dirty, dangerous energy source less so, it makes much more sense to work toward improving the successful and growing renewable energy technologies already on the market. Wind and solar power are not only truly clean and renewable resources, their industries are growing exponentially as they become price competitive with pollution subsidized fossil fuels.
Achieving real clean energy means letting go of a legacy of fossil fuels and putting our hopes in new, truly clean sources.
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The leaves on this cherry tree have suffered damage from a late frost. Richard Primack, CC BY-ND
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By Jeff Masters
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America's infrastructure a C- grade in its quadrennial assessment issued March 3. ASCE gave the nation's flood control infrastructure – dams and levees – a D grade. This is a highly concerning assessment, given that climate change is increasingly stressing dams and levees as increased evaporation from the oceans drives heavier precipitation events.
Figure 1. Debris fills the Feather River from the damaged spillway of California's Oroville Dam, the nation's tallest dam, after its near-collapse in February 2017. The Oroville incident forced the evacuation of nearly 190,000 people and cost $1.1 billion in repairs. California Department of Water Resources
Figure 2. The L-550 levee on the Missouri River overtopping during the spring 2011 floods. USACE
By Jacob Carter
On Wednesday, the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced that it will be rescinding secretarial order 3369, which sidelined scientific research and its use in the agency's decisions. Put in place by the previous administration, the secretarial order restricted decisionmakers at the DOI from using scientific studies that did not make all data publicly available.
Science Rising at Interior<p>The rescinded secretarial order is not the only notable victory we have seen from the DOI recently. The Biden administration has moved swiftly to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/climate/biden-interior-department-haaland.html" target="_blank">restore consideration of climate change</a> in its decisions, <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/biden-expected-to-reverse-trump-order-to-shrink-utah-national-monuments" target="_blank">reverse assaults on our public lands</a>, and <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/biden-halts-trump-rule-gutted-landmark-bird-protection-law" target="_blank">taken actions to protect our nation's wildlife</a>. These decisions, unlike many made at the DOI over the past four years, have been informed by science—and President Biden's pick to lead the DOI, Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, has <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/22/politics/haaland-confirmation-remarks/index.html" target="_blank">promised in her confirmation hearing</a> to continue to make decisions that are guided by science.</p><p><strong>Saving Migratory Birds</strong></p><p>One of the parting gifts of the prior administration was a <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/outgoing-administration-gave-thumbs-up-to-migratory-bird-massacre-its-time-to-reverse-the-damage" target="_blank">reinterpretation of a long-standing rule that protected migratory bird species</a>. For decades, the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Treaty Act</a> (MBTA) had protected migratory bird species, which are in decline in the US, by allowing the DOI to fine industries that failed to take proper precautions to protect migratory birds. For example, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/threats-to-birds/entrapment-entanglement-drowning.php#:~:text=An%20estimated%20500%2C000%20to%201,trays%2C%20and%201%25%20spills." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not placing proper netting over oil pits</a>, which can result in the death of migratory birds. The rule, however, was reinterpreted by the prior administration such that industries could only be fined if bird deaths were "intentional" and not if they occurred incidentally due to a lack of precautions.</p><p>The prior administration, in its final days, also <a href="https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2021/03/endangered-species-recovery-interior-deb-haaland/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eliminated protections for the northern spotted owl</a>, which is currently listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as a threatened species. More than 3 million acres of the owl's habitat were removed from protection to pave way for timber harvesting. Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/climate/biden-interior-department-haaland.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stated that she had received</a> "…several calls from wildlife biologists who are in tears who said, 'Did you know this is happening? The bird won't survive this."</p><p>The Biden administration, following the best available science, has delayed the implementation of both rules.</p><p><strong>Restoring Public Lands</strong></p><p>In 2017, two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante of Utah, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/04/us/trump-bears-ears.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were reduced in size by some two million acres</a>, the largest reduction of federal land protection in our nation's history. Later, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/02/climate/bears-ears-national-monument.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">internal emails at the DOI</a> would show that these actions were not a product of following the best available science, and were instead guided by a push to exploit oil and natural gas deposits within the boundaries of the protected land. In particular, the decision did not consider the archaeological importance of the protected lands or their cultural heritage. Sidelining these facets of this decision is likely what <a href="https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2021/02/biden-orders-review-of-trumps-assaults-on-americas-natural-treasures/?utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=naytev&utm_medium=social" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">prompted a review of the reductions</a> by the Biden administration.</p>
Bringing Science Back Across the Administration<p>Beyond the Interior department, the Biden administration has taken quick steps to bring science back to the forefront of decisionmaking across the federal government. In January, President Biden signed a <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/memorandum-on-restoring-trust-in-government-through-scientific-integrity-and-evidence-based-policymaking/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">presidential memo</a> to strengthen scientific integrity and evidence-based decisionmaking. The memo, among many other positive steps for science, has initiated a review process on scientific integrity policies that should be finalized toward the end of the year. Given the <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">unprecedented number of times we documented political interference in science-based decision-making processes</a> over the past four years, such a review, and the subsequent recommendations arising from it, are clearly warranted.</p><p>The Biden administration also has formed multiple scientific advisory groups to help make choices informed by the best available science to protect public health and our environment. This includes advisory groups on critical issues such as <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/memorandum-on-restoring-trust-in-government-through-scientific-integrity-and-evidence-based-policymaking/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">scientific integrity</a>, <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/02/10/president-biden-announces-members-of-the-biden-harris-administration-covid-19-health-equity-task-force/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">COVID-19</a>, and <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2021/02/04/495397/mapping-environmental-justice-biden-harris-administration/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">environmental justice</a>. The administration also is moving quickly to <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/biden-transition-updates/2020/12/17/938092644/biden-to-pick-north-carolina-regulator-michael-regan-to-lead-epa" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appoint qualified leaders</a> at science-based agencies and has asked the heads of agencies to expeditiously establish scientific integrity officials and chief science officers.</p><p>In addition to rescinding the secretarial order at DOI, the Biden administration has also rescinded several other anti-science actions taken over the past four years. Among the <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/02/24/executive-order-on-the-revocation-of-certain-presidential-actions/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">many anti-science executive orders reversed by President Biden are </a>an order that directed agencies to arbitrarily cut their advisory committees by one-third and another that required agencies to cut two regulations for every new regulation they issued.</p><p>There has been a lot of progress for science-based decisionmaking over the past six weeks, with more expected as qualified individuals are appointed to head science-based agencies. And yet we know through our research that <a href="https://www.sciencepolicyjournal.org/uploads/5/4/3/4/5434385/berman_emily__carter_jacob.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">every administration has politicized science-based decisionmaking to some extent</a>.</p><p>We will continue to watch, demand, and ensure that science guides the critical decisions being made by the Biden administration. Our health, our environment, and our safety depend on it.</p><p><em><a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/author/jacob-carter#.YED_bRNKjt0" target="_blank">Jacob Carter</a> is a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from the <em><a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/science-wins-at-the-interior-department" target="_blank">Union of Concerned Scientists</a>.</em></em></p>
At first glance, you wouldn't think avocados and almonds could harm bees; but a closer look at how these popular crops are produced reveals their potentially detrimental effect on pollinators.
Migratory beekeeping involves trucking millions of bees across the U.S. to pollinate different crops, including avocados and almonds. Timothy Paule II / Pexels / CC0<p>According to <a href="https://www.fromthegrapevine.com/israeli-kitchen/beekeeping-how-to-keep-bees" target="_blank">From the Grapevine</a>, American avocados also fully depend on bees' pollination to produce fruit, so farmers have turned to migratory beekeeping as well to fill the void left by wild populations.</p><p>U.S. farmers have become reliant upon the practice, but migratory beekeeping has been called exploitative and harmful to bees. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/10/health/avocado-almond-vegan-partner/index.html" target="_blank">CNN</a> reported that commercial beekeeping may injure or kill bees and that transporting them to pollinate crops appears to negatively affect their health and lifespan. Because the honeybees are forced to gather pollen and nectar from a single, monoculture crop — the one they've been brought in to pollinate — they are deprived of their normal diet, which is more diverse and nourishing as it's comprised of a variety of pollens and nectars, Scientific American reported.</p><p>Scientific American added how getting shuttled from crop to crop and field to field across the country boomerangs the bees between feast and famine, especially once the blooms they were brought in to fertilize end.</p><p>Plus, the artificial mass influx of bees guarantees spreading viruses, mites and fungi between the insects as they collide in midair and crawl over each other in their hives, Scientific American reported. According to CNN, some researchers argue that this explains why so many bees die each winter, and even why entire hives suddenly die off in a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.</p>
Avocado and almond crops depend on bees for proper pollination. FRANK MERIÑO / Pexels / CC0<p>Salazar and other Columbian beekeepers described "scooping up piles of dead bees" year after year since the avocado and citrus booms began, according to Phys.org. Many have opted to salvage what partial colonies survive and move away from agricultural areas.</p><p>The future of pollinators and the crops they help create is uncertain. According to the United Nations, nearly half of insect pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, risk global extinction, Phys.org reported. Their decline already has cascading consequences for the economy and beyond. Roughly 1.4 billion jobs and three-quarters of all crops around the world depend on bees and other pollinators for free fertilization services worth billions of dollars, Phys.org noted. Losing wild and native bees could <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wild-bees-crop-shortage-2646849232.html" target="_self">trigger food security issues</a>.</p><p>Salazar, the beekeeper, warned Phys.org, "The bee is a bioindicator. If bees are dying, what other insects beneficial to the environment... are dying?"</p>
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