Time is up for coal: environmental analyst

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States should leave its estimated 200 years’ supply of coal in the ground and invest in wind farms and solar technology for its power-generating needs, a leading environmental analyst said on Thursday.

Southern Company's Plant Bowen in Cartersville, Georgia is seen in this file photo taken September 4, 2007. REUTERS/Chris Baltimore

Wall Street, politicians and public opinion have all turned so dramatically against coal in the last year over climate concerns that it is probably “the beginning of the end of the coal industry,” said Lester Brown.

He claimed in a conference call with reporters that efforts to clean up coal and develop carbon sequestration technology to prevent emissions from coal-fired power plants were too far off and would be more expensive than investing in energy efficiency and alternative power sources.

“Carbon sequestration has been something the coal industry has leaned on to avoid facing the full force of the climate concerns and will probably not be a viable option,” said Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization.

The coal industry shot back, accusing Brown of exaggerating coal’s contribution to climate change and ignoring the economic necessity of power generation.

“This is part of a concerted effort to grossly exaggerate opposition to coal-based electricity generation,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association (NMA), which groups together coal and other mining companies.

“The NGO’s (nongovernmental organizations) are on a jihad, exaggerating anecdotal evidence to conclude that coal is on the way out. Demand for coal in the world, let alone the United States, continues to set records, despite what they say.

“Affordable power is critical for the U.S. economy,” said Popovich. According to NMA figures, U.S. electricity utilities consumed 1.05 billion tons of coal last year, up from 859.3 million tons in 2000.


Brown noted that a Department of Energy report last year listed 151 coal-fired power plants in the planning stages and talked about “a resurgence in coal-fired electricity.”

But during 2007, 59 of those proposed plants were either refused licenses by state governments or quietly abandoned. Almost 50 more are being contested in the courts, and the remaining plants will likely be challenged as they reach the permitting stage, he said.

“The public at large is turning against coal,” he said, citing a 2007 national poll by the Opinion Research Corp in which only 3 percent of people chose coal as their preferred source for electricity.

Legislators in Texas and Florida have refused to license new coal-fired plants, and last August coal “took a heavy political hit” when U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he was against building coal-fired power plants anywhere in the world.

Coal’s future is also suffering as Wall Street turns its back on the industry, Brown said. Citigroup and Merrill Lynch have both downgraded coal company stocks across the board.

This month, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America said lending for coal-fired power plants will be contingent on utilities demonstrating they would be economically viable under future federal rules on emissions.

“This appears to be the kiss of death for the industry,” Brown said, especially if a national moratorium on coal-fired plants is passed by Congress.

Asked by Reuters what the U.S. should do with its vast coal reserves, given the growing demand for electricity, Brown said: “I’m in favor of leaving it right where it is.”

And he dismissed coal-to-liquid technology, in which coal can be converted into vehicle fuels, as “too carbon-intensive.”

“The cheapest alternative is investing in efficiency,” he said, claiming that if the U.S. shifted to long-life compact florescent light bulbs, it would save enough power to close 80 coal-fired power plants.

Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe