The Evils of Coal

*I am rushing to post a few blogs for my Sustainability students to read before their final exam, so this entry is only partially complete.

*Note: An excellent recent article in the New York Times makes many of the points that I hope to make in this book. See:

"New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears" <>

From the global warming perspective, you might think that decreasing oil supply would be good because it would lead to decreasing CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, we are likely to turn to other fossil fuels that emit more CO2 per unit energy (*give table with CO2 per unit energy). And the dirtiest fuel we have available is coal.

Coal companies are now under pressure, and in classic corporate fashion are responding with an ad campaign that makes a joke of the truth. The ad I saw on TV last night emphasized in audio and text that coal is a clean fuel. Actually, it’s the dirtiest fuel I can think of. If you have ever held a piece of coal, perhaps on Christmas in a year you were “naughty”, you know that it is dirty. You touch it and your hands turn black. If you burn it you will see lots of dirty smoke, and when you’re done burning it you will have a pile of ashes. It’s very similar to charcoal; both form by partial oxidation (burning) of organic matter, usually cellulose-rich plant material such as wood, and both are dirty. Coal was the preferred fuel of the 19th century in England, when everything was covered with a layer of black soot. It was not coincidence that cancer was discovered in England at that time. A doctor noticed that chimney sweeps often had testicular cancer. This was because the sweeps were usually orphans pressed into hard labor, who were forced to take off all of their clothes so they could fit inside a chimney. They would climb the chimneys to clean them, and their bodies were always covered in black soot.

One of the first laws against air pollution came in 1300 when King Edward I decreed the death penalty for burning of coal.  At least one execution for that offense is recorded.  But economics triumphed over health considerations, and air pollution became an appalling problem in England.  ~Glenn T. Seaborg, Atomic Energy Commission chairman, speech, Argonne National Laboratory, 1969

But the most dangerous effect of burning coal is not the visible carcinogenic pollutants that are released when it is burned, nor the fly ash that remains after burning; it is the huge amount of CO2 that is released to the atmosphere. Coal is fossilized plant matter, so the reverse of Eq. 1 shows what happens when we burn it. Coal releases more CO2 per unit energy than any other form of fuel (see Table ?). So not only does use of coal lead to mountaintop removal, failure of coal slurry retention ponds (Martin County, KY 2000), pollution, and failure of fly ash retention ponds (e.g., Kingston, TN 2008), it also leads to maximum possible CO2 emissions and global warming. I’m sorry, what were the selling points for coal? Oh, that we have a lot of it? Well, we have a lot of sewage too, but that doesn’t mean we would want to use it for anything.

Let me give you some examples of how coal companies operate. Massey Coal is an example of the worst of American corporations. The movie “Sludge” shows how a subsidiary of Massey, Martin County Coal, released 306 million gallons of coal slurry into the Coldwater Fork of Wolf Creek in eastern KY in 2000, which contaminated local drinking water. A Martin County Coal representative told residents that the slurry posed no health threats because everything in the slurry could be found in the periodic table. Whoa, that was reassuring. Once the Bush administration took office, the investigation into the cause was shut down, the one dissenter was fired, and Massey was ordered to pay a fine of only $110,000, which amazingly was later lowered to only $1000 (*check). Yes, that’s what we pay those government regulators for. In 2008 Massey had accrued fines of roughly $2.4 billion for violations of the Clean Water Act; in 2008 they agreed to pay $20 million to the U.S. EPA. Also in 2008 Massey paid $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties resulting from a mine fire in West Virginia in 2006, the largest financial settlement in the history of the coal industry ( Recently I heard on the radio that Massey is involved in a lawsuit that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. It seems a competitor, Harman Mining, refused to sell a coal mine to Massey, so Massey bought all of the property surrounding that mine and prevented access to the property. The competitor sued in court and won $50 million, but Massey appealed it to the State Supreme Court. Massey’s chief executive Don Blankenship arranged donations of $3 million to get Brent Benjamin elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (the $3 million was spent on a character assassination campaign against Benjamin’s opponent). When Massey’s appeal made it to the Court of Appeals Benjamin refused to recuse himself from the case, and ended up casting the deciding vote in favor of Massey. Gee, do you think he was biased? Do you think Massey bought the court’s decision? Why do we allow the public election of judges in this country, anyway? The U.S. Supreme Court head the case in March 2009, and we are currently waiting to see if they reinstate the judgement against Massey.

Here is some dirt on Massey CEO Don Blankenship from Wikipedia ( “On November 22, 2008 the Williamson (Daily News (Williamson, WV) reported that Massey CEO Don Blankenship compared the editor of the Charleston Gazette, James A. Haught, to Osama bin Laden at a public speech to the Tug Valley Mining Institute on Nov 20 [59]. In the videotaped speech, Blankenship called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Harry Reid and former Vice President Al Gore "crazies" and "greeniacs" [60]. He referred to the support of President Jimmy Carter for energy conservation in the 1970s to communism: "Buy a smaller car? Conserve? I have spent quite a bit of time in Russia and China, and that’s the first stage."

On April 3, 2008, ABC News reported that CEO Blankenship attacked an ABC News cameraman at a Massey facility near Belfry, Kentucky as the camerman attempted to question Blankenship about photos published in the New York Times [61] showing Blankenship on vacation in Monaco with West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard. "If you’re going to start taking pictures of me, you’re liable to get shot," Blankenship stated in the video[62]. Following the incident, Justice Maynard lost his bid for re-election to the West Virginia Supreme Court in the West Virginia primary election [63].

Clean coal is an oxymoron, similar to “healthy cigarettes”. Coal is the dirtiest form of energy we have. When Obama refers to clean coal, he means that all of the CO2 is captured and sequestered.

See Clean Coal Air Freshener parody:

Clean Coal:


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
This entry was posted in Environment, Fossil fuels, Future, Global warming, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Evils of Coal

  1. Andrew says:

    This section was really interesting, and really sums up a lot of these issues talked about in class, especially about all the corruption in the coal industry.

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