Newsweek Gets Coal Terribly Wrong

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"Newsweek Gets Coal Terribly Wrong"

Daniel Stone published a dreadful piece on coal and energy over at Newsweek‘s The Gaggle called “West Virginia Mine Disaster Unlikely to Affect National Energy Debate.”  Guest blogger JW Randolph of Appalachian Voices, debunks it fully in this WR repost.

David Roberts at Grist responded to Energy Committee Staffer Bill Wicker for a quote he had in the article, and it’s well worth the read. But the article was so full of misinformation and false pretexts that I wanted to spend some pixels correcting a few things, beginning with this paragraph:

Coal is the one fuel that powers most of what we do. It accounts for 49 percent of American power consumption, and as demand for power increases while the cost of alternatives (wind, solar, biofuels) remains high, coal is poised to play a bigger, not smaller, role in our energy landscape. To put it more crassly, the cost of coal is just too cheap. A kilowatt hour of coal power costs about $0.04, less than a third of renewables.

Facts:

A) For 2009, coal provided just 44.6% of electricity, not the 49% Stone suggests (likely from the 2008 data.) If you are looking at “energy” then it is 22-23%, much less.


B) Saying that coal is poised to play a “bigger” role is ridiculous. Coal is declining, particularly production in Central Appalachia. It has been declining for the past two decades and is projected to continue downward. But not only that. It is getting deeper, thinner, and of less quality. The heat content is in decline as well, meaning that it takes more tons of coal to produce the same amount of electricity.

C) Delivered costs of coal are wildly different in different locations and in different coal plants. Central Appalachian coal (like that in West Virginia) is the most expensive coal on the domestic market.

D) Stone uses ballpark figures for the cost of a coal plant that is already built, but renewables that are not yet built. If you are looking at building a new coal plant versus investing in renewables, the two are cost competitive, even without a price on coal pollution (EIA). In fact, except for solar, nothing even doubles the cost of coal, and that’s without CCS.

E) The deeper we go for thinner seams of less quality coal, the more expensive central Appalachian coal gets and the more competitive natural gas, wind, geothermal, or biomass may look. The same is true for safety regulations. Coal companies fight them tooth and nail because safety isn’t free. This has an impact on energy policy. You can’t look at mining safety in a vacuum.

Secondly, I am concerned that many in the news media continually fail to appreciate the sacrifice of coal miners, whose deaths occur with alarming frequency both at home and overseas. Mr. Stone continues:

The reason safety isn’t included [in the cost of energy] is because accidents””from mine cave-ins to oil-rig deaths””don’t happen often enough for safety to become a formidable factor in the national discussion on our energy future. What’s more, the playing field isn’t all that tilted. Despite a bad week for coal miners, wind has also been fatal””14 men were killed working with wind energy in the mid ’90s, and more since, according to wind-industry analyst Paul Gipe. Not to mention the risks posed by nuclear. While most sectors have undergone regulation over the past few years to root out dangerous components, the reality is that all energy sectors are still risky in many ways.

Facts:

A) Mining accidents happen all the time in the US. Over 300 people have died mining coal in the United States just in the last decade, nearly always exceeding 20 per year. It’s just that there isn’t always media saturation. Over 51,000 people have died mining coal in China in the same time period. That’s more than 3600 times the numbers that have been “killed by wind” in just one country and in half the time span.

B) Speaking of which, Mr. Stone uses MONSTROUS false equivalency regarding the different energy sectors. He says 14 people were killed working with wind energy in the mid-90s? What does that even mean? First of all, Gipe’s numbers are worldwide. That doesn’t even compare to the number of deaths from mining and processing coal in the United States alone. 18 people died in accidents mining coal in the US just last year, and that was a “great” year. Add in the 10,000 US coal miners who die each decade from black lung disease, and Mr. Stone’s comparison becomes even more toxic.

C) You can’t look at energy in a vacuum. Policy makers certainly don’t. Look at the externalized cost of what is happening to coal communities, particularly in Appalachia. Not only has coal had a negative impact on endemic Appalachian poverty, but the health costs are estimated to be more than $42 billion every year due to health impacts and life lost. There is no cost comparison. There is no risk comparison.

— Daniel Stone

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18 Responses to Newsweek Gets Coal Terribly Wrong

  1. mike roddy says:

    From their point of view, Newsweek got it right. They are owned by the Washington Post, which refused to correct fabricated data about glaciers from George Will, their star columnist. And Newsweek has a long history of horrible coverage of climate science and energy issues.

    Katherine Graham would never have allowed this nonsense, and Ben Bradlee would have resigned in disgust, and started a blog.

    Since the Post is just a media company, you can’t connect direct dots to interests in fossil fuel companies. More likely, it’s a case of wealthy Post stockholders and members of the Board who have drifted into reactionary politics, and don’t want to see their energy portfolios disturbed. It has unfortunately become routine for a tiny minority to oversee the content of what we read in magazines and watch on TV.

    They are reflexive global warming skeptics, since when they’re not on the golf course or drinking single malt at a charity function they are calling their financial managers. Fossil fuel companies have been the only capital safe haven in the last three years, and they are fighting to keep their stock prices and earnings stable.

    These people don’t give a damn about what happens to the earth or its inhabitants a few decades from now. They are puerile, greed crazed people, driven half mad by the fact that being able to crap in one of nine bathrooms in their houses has not made them any happier. The inner journey, or reading a book about anything at all (not just climate science) is just not in them.

  2. Anne says:

    I’ve known Bill Wicker for many years, he’s been a communications fixture of that committee going back a couple of decades. He reflects the overall sense of the Members, who, by and large, are not sustainable energy folks. (There may even be a secret Palin fan or two….) I also think the quote is instructive. We’ve completely cubby-holed/stove-piped/choose your term of art– the whole energy equation, i.e., it’s just an OSHA type issue, doesn’t have anything to do with energy policy. The failure to think and act holistically is what is tearing our country (and the world) apart, rapidly. I am astonished to witness it, time after time, and yet it is a fundamental aspect of modern society. Right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Dis-integration. It’s a social illness, but, for the life of me, I don’t know the cure. To Bill Wicker’s defense, he’s one of the nicest people I know, and he does get the need for sustainability. The comment, he would probably say, was taken to literally and out of context. It does raise the issue that the Senate Energy Committee could use some greener blood. Maybe this could be raised after the mid-terms, when Committee slots are horse-traded.

  3. BillD says:

    Plans for coal plants have been cancelled around the country. Not surprisely, utilities are reluctant to invest in new coal plants when there is a high (or at least ‘significant”) risk of taxes on CO2 emissions. This seems like a very disengenuous article in NEWSWEEK. Did it include any comments about cancelled plans for proposed coal-fired plants?

    Hopefully, the tide against coal plants turned a while back, and the trend will be toward replacing existing coal plants. One way to speed that along would be to crack down on existing air pollution violations (those based on sulphur, mercury etc.).

  4. catman306 says:

    BillD: Not in Georgia. Georgia-Pacific is one of the Koch Industries. Haven’t they heard that coal pollution kills trees and forests?

    The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has just approved a 850 MW coal fired electric plant. They could have used natural gas. Probably a good old boys deal. The EPD must be in someone’s pocket.

    Georgia-Pacific is one of the Koch Industries. Haven’t they heard that coal pollution kills trees and forests?

    http://www.ajc.com/business/new-coal-permit-issued-446731.html?cxtype=rss_news_128746

  5. Chris Dudley says:

    “if we don’t act on climate change or stabilize dangerous pH levels caused by mercury runoff that lead to acid rain”

    The level of ignorance in this statement from the Newsweek article is a little worrisome. Sulfur an nitrogen oxides are responsible for acid rain, not mercury. Mercury is responsible for poor brain development in infants and other poisonous effects. Mercury bioaccumulates in fish and about a quarter of fresh water fish in the US are contaminated above federal standards. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/greenspace/2009/08/mercury-fish-streams.html

    Sulfur and mercury are found in coal and spread in the atmosphere when it is burned. Nitrogen is also present in coal but the oxides pollutants mostly come from combustion with air containing nitrogen.

  6. Bob Wallace says:

    catman – Old fools often turn into broke fools.

    These folks may well build their coal plant. But once they start running it they’re going to see that once they calculate construction and fuel costs they should have had a V8, er, other idea.

    It’s like Southern Company building a couple of new nuclear plants.

    These guys are going to be competing against new wind farms, natural gas and biomass burners, and the rapidly falling price of solar. They’re likely to be bitten on the other end by plateauing/dropping demand as conservation measures take hold.

    I’m betting that they’re setting an example for others as to what not to do with your money….

  7. Alex Carlin says:

    I can’t for the life of me understand why an article like this one in Newsweek can get away with ignoring the 800 pound pink gorilla in the middle of the room: BURNING COAL PAST 2030 WILL SUBMERGE MAJOR POPULATION CENTERS. Hansen wrote to me (when I was researching an article for (IN THESE TIMES http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/5248/100_miles_of_mirrors/), that burning coal past 2030 means unstoppable melting of enough polar ice to raise sea levels 20 feet by the end of the century. He and his team also say, staying at 450ppm long enough will mean ALL THE POLAR ICE WILL MELT. So, my point: how can Newsweek ignore this minor little problem that burning coal presents? To blithely say “well its cheap, so that’s the way it will be”? Where is the adult in the room here? Its like saying “jumping off the Empire State Building is a reasonably good idea if you want to see lower Manhattan” without mentioning you might be hurt by falling an enormous distance.

    Lets redouble our efforts in our “movement” here – we’ve got a long way to go, but we still have time. “Burn That Coal, Melt The South Pole. 100 Miles of (Solar Thermal) Mirrors or it Wont be Pretty – We’ll lose Miami and New York City!”

  8. Chris Winter says:

    Joe wrote: “Speaking of which, Mr. Stone uses MONSTROUS false equivalency regarding the different energy sectors. He says 14 people were killed working with wind energy in the mid-90s? What does that even mean? First of all, Gipe’s numbers are worldwide. That doesn’t even compare to the number of deaths from mining and processing coal in the United States alone. 18 people died in accidents mining coal in the US just last year, and that was a “great” year. Add in the 10,000 US coal miners who die each decade from black lung disease, and Mr. Stone’s comparison becomes even more toxic.”

    Right. And one more point: Where is the wind-energy equivalent to Big Coal’s common (but not universal) attitude that safety equipment is a luxury? Let’s see the evidence for safety harnesses being denied to technicians who climb those towers.

    This is indeed a bad piece by Newsweek. Its overall attempt to tar all energy sources with the same brush is bogus and, as comments to the article noted, devoid of facts when it comes to nuclear.

  9. ChicagoMike says:

    ” If you are looking at building a new coal plant versus investing in renewables, the two are cost competitive, even without a price on coal pollution (EIA).”

    This is a little off topic, but according to the study linked in the sentence above, nuclear energy also looks cost competitive. This flies in the face of everything I’ve read about the exorbitant cost of building new nukes. Can anyone help clarify?

  10. Andy Olsen says:

    I posted a comment there but there are only FIVE comments. Suggest others post comments, as well.

  11. Mike #22 says:

    Chicago Mike, the same EIA is also blissfully projecting steadily increasing global oil production through 2030. The chart referenced above should be ignored. Search this site for (arguably) the broadest information on the cost of new generation technology.

  12. Bill Woods says:

    “Speaking of which, Mr. Stone uses MONSTROUS false equivalency regarding the different energy sectors. He says 14 people were killed working with wind energy in the mid-90s? What does that even mean? First of all, Gipe’s numbers are worldwide. That doesn’t even compare to the number of deaths from mining and processing coal in the United States alone.”

    He’s comparing fatalities per unit of electricity produced. And the equivalence is that false, though wind comes out better than coal:
    “Yet, it appears that the current mortality rate of wind energy of 0.15 deaths per TWh is roughly equivalent to that of mining, processing, and burning of coal to generate electricity according to some researchers. (This data doesn’t include increases in mortality from the air pollution that results from burning coal.) Data from other researchers indicates that wind’s mortality rate is about half that for the occupational mortality rate for coal.” http://www.wind-works.org/articles/BreathLife.html

  13. catman306 says:

    Bob Wallace wrote ‘I’m betting that they’re setting an example for others as to what not to do with your money….’

    The Southern Company has engineered a rate increase to pay for the nuclear plants BEFORE they go online. The Republican state government passed a law superseding the Public Service Commission to legitimize this prepay rate increase. It starts at about $1.30 a month for the millions of rate payers increasing to over $9.00 in the ten years that it will take to build these reactors. The constitutionality of this law is being tested.

    http://www.connectsavannah.com/news/article/101987/

  14. Bob Wallace says:

    catman – Florida Power and Light tried to pull that trick, getting people to pre-pay for new nukes, but they were stopped by Florida’s Public Service Commission.

    Doesn’t matter that Southern is getting to pre-fleece. People in other companies who are working their way though the numbers are smart enough to add in that money and will assess whether the people in their area will bend over for that trick.

  15. Chris Dudley says:

    Chris #8,

    The comments make a common sleight-of-hand used by nuclear proponents: they say US nuclear plants have a low fatality rate, but then so do coal plants. Mining uranium has a poor history just like coal. Of course, there appear to be tens of thousands of deaths attributable to nuclear power outside the US. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TORCH_report We’ve just been lucky so far.

  16. ChrisB says:

    It’s puzzling that the heat content of coal used to be more than it is now.
    ( http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/pdf/pages/sec13_5.pdf ) There’s no reason I can think of why coal that was near the surface or otherwise easier to get at would have a higher heat content than coal that was harder to get at.

  17. Chris Dudley says:

    Chris (#16),

    Suppose you had two coal fields side by side, one with high heat content coal and one with low. Which would you strip mine first? The one that would pay the most money. That would be the one that needed less digging and fewer train cars t get the same energy, the higher heat content coal. Over time, you run out of that stuff and start selling the poorer quality stuff. We see the same effect as tar sands start to enter the oil supply.

    Another effect is regulatory. Wyoming has coal that has low heat content but it also has low sulfur so it has become a large supplier to reduce the need for scrubbers and gypsum disposal at power plants.

  18. Bob Wallace says:

    Coal is just like oil. We went after the highest quality, easiest to extract first.

    Now in many places we’re going back and working sites which weren’t rich enough to bother with when pickings were better.

    And we’re revisiting old oil fields and expending more energy to remove lower quality/harder to reach oil that we left behind.