A Free-Market Energy Blog

Coal As An Environmental Product (Part II)

By Mary Hutzler -- July 10, 2013

“Since 1970, the total emissions of the six criteria pollutants have declined by 68 percent, even though energy consumption has increased by 45 percent, vehicle miles traveled have increased by 167 percent, and the economy has grown by 212 percent…. As technology continues to advance, coal-fired power plants will become even cleaner and air quality will continue to improve. “

Coal, which until recently produced 50 percent of the nation’s electricity, has been losing market share to lower-cost natural gas and mandated, highly subsidized renewable energy. Anti-coal environmental regulation has also figured into the decline. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has essentially banned new coal plants and made its continued use in existing plants extremely costly. As a result, coal produced only 37 percent of our electricity in 2012.

One of the biggest stated concerns about coal is air pollution. Coal produces more emissions than natural gas when burned. However, due to actions taken by industry and technological advances, our air quality is improving and new coal plants are cleaner than ever before.

Pollution control technologies such as flue gas desulfurization, selective catalytic reducers, fabric filters, and dry sorbent injection have greatly reduced coal plant emissions. [For a description of an in-service, low-emission, state-of-the-art coal plant, see here.]

According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), for example, a new pulverized-coal plant (operating at lower,
“subcritical” temperatures and pressures) reduces the emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 86 percent, sulfur dioxide (SO2) by 98 percent, and particulate matter by 99.8 percent, as compared  with a similar plant having no pollution controls.

These advances in technology have enabled large improvements in air quality. Since 1970, the total emissions of the six criteria pollutants have declined by 68 percent, even though energy consumption has increased by 45 percent, vehicle miles traveled have increased by 167 percent, and the economy has grown by 212 percent. (The “criteria pollutants” are carbon monoxide,  lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, and particulate matter.)

The following chart from EPA data shows the increase in economic measures compared to the decrease in pollution emissions.

As technology continues to advance, coal-fired power plants will become even cleaner and air quality will continue to improve. In fact, as the New York Times has reported, China is actually constructing some coal plants that are cleaner than those allowed to be built in the United States. It is ironic that China will ultimately become the world’s supplier of the most advanced clean coal plants, despite the U.S. coal resource base which dwarfs their own.

Anti-Coal Politics

Although coal produces relatively inexpensive energy, many activist groups adamantly oppose coal mining and coal-fired power plants. The Sierra Club, for example, has worked particularly hard to stop coal-fired power plants. They claim that they have prevented 150 new coal-fired power plants from being built.

Coal mines, especially in Appalachia, are coming under increasing fire from environmental interest groups and the Obama administration. The EPA revoked a clean water permit that the Army Corps of Engineers had previously awarded, despite the fact that, according to the Army Corps, the permit complies with West Virginia state water law and the federal Clean Water Act.

The problem, according to EPA, is that granting the permit would lead to changes in the conductivity (or salinity) of the water that might be detrimental to mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis flies. xxviii In other words, EPA denied the permit, not because of impacts on human health, but potential impacts on mayflies.

The EPA has promulgated new regulations that target mercury from coal-fired power plants (the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards), which many call Utility MACT because the rule requires “Maximum Achievable Control Technology” for mercury at coal-fired power plants.

Higher Electricity Rates

These technologies must be installed over a tight three-year period between 2012 and 2015, raising the cost of generating power from existing coal-fired plants where the economics make sense to install the technology, or forcing those plants to retire or to convert to natural gas.

The National Economic Research Associates found compliance costs to be $21 billion per year and lost jobs to amount to 183,000 per year. Even a fraction of these costs will result in higher electricity rates from cost pass-through under public utility regulation.

Studies project that retail electricity prices will increase between 10 and 20 percent in most of the country and over 20 percent in the coal-dependent states in the Midwest.


This post is taken from testimony presented yesterday by Mary J. Hutzler of the Institute for Energy Research before the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Committee on Natural Resources. Full documentation can be found in her testimony.


  1. Clayton Handleman  

    This article is nothing but cheer-leading for coal power. In the very first sentence it says that coal is losing out to less expensive natural gas and mentions other challenges related to the environmental costs. So let me start with a question, if we had policy that dropped the other two, EPA regs and renewables, would the author be complaining about coal’s decline?

    The article is strange in that it talks a lot about coal getting cleaner. That is all fine and good but if other sources are less expensive AND cleaner – and natural gas is such a source – that would seem to make the point moot. Coal is in decline and for good reason. The article never even acknowledges climate change.


  2. rbradley  


    The full testimony, of which this is an excerpt, mentions climate change.

    The intermittency problem of wind (and solar) refers to every kWh since fossil plants inefficiently and expensively fill in the unpredictable, momentary lapses. Wind cannot compete against coal-fired power because it is rotten fruit to apples. If you firm wind with batteries, then it is apples-to-apples.

    Existing coal plants have sunk costs competing against new capacity, gas-fired or otherwise. The economics favors coal in such situations.

    It is interesting that coal has made a bit of a comeback in the U.S. as natural gas prices have risen. And global coal remains strong. The war on U.S. coal exports by political interests is trying to prevent US-side climate policies from making global warming ‘worse’.


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