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Saving lives with coal

By Paul Driessen
web posted January 12, 2009

There is no such thing as "clean coal," environmentalists insist. Burning coal to generate electricity emits soot particles that cause respiratory problems, lung cancer and heart disease, killing 24,000 Americans annually, they argue.

It's the kind of claim that eco-activist Bruce Hamilton says "builds the Sierra Club," by generating cash and lobbying clout for his and similar groups.

It's also disingenuous, unethical and harmful.

Since 1970, unhealthy power plant pollutants have been reduced by almost 95% per unit of energy produced. Particulate emissions (soot) decreased 90% below 1970 levels, even as coal use tripled, and new technologies and regulations will nearly eliminate most coal-related pollution by 2020, notes air quality expert Joel Schwartz.

Moreover, the vast bulk of modern power plant particulates are ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate. "Neither substance is harmful, even at levels tens of times greater than are ever found in the air Americans breathe," Schwartz says.

The alleged death toll is based on speculative links between pollution and disease, and unwarranted extrapolations from responsible estimates to levels that grab headlines and prompt contributions.

Coal helps keep American homes, businesses, factories, airports, schools and hospitals humming, and provides myriad benefits that never get mentioned by anti-coal factions. Even if we accept these groups' assertions as fact, the benefits of coal should be considered in any policy debate – just as we acknowledge (and strive to reduce) motor vehicle deaths, but recognize the value of transporting people, products and produce.

Coal generates half of all US electricity, and 60-98% in twenty-two states, according to the Energy Information Administration. Modern, state-of-the-art, low-pollution coal-fired generators have replaced both antiquated power plants and monstrous industrial furnaces that were the backbone of our nation's steel-making and industrial might just two generations ago. They build and power thousands of products that improve and save millions of lives.

Imposing excessive new regulations, or closing coal-fired power plants, would produce few health or environmental benefits. But it would exact huge costs on society – and bring factories, offices and economies to a screeching halt in states that are 80-98% dependent on coal: Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Coal's reliable, affordable electricity creates millions of high-paying jobs, and thus provides health insurance, rent and mortgage money, nutrition, clothing and retirement benefits for countless families. It keeps people warm (and alive) on freezing nights, and comfortable during summer heat waves like the 2003 scorcher that killed 15,000 elderly French citizens who didn't have air-conditioning.

Thanks to coal-based electricity, CT scans, x-rays, colonoscopies and other examinations detect cancer, heart disease and other health threats, saving numerous lives every year. Life-saving and enhancing surgeries are performed because doctors have lights, lasers, computers, and sterile operating rooms and equipment. Premie wards and life-support systems carry people through critical illnesses. 

Children and adults get vaccinations that remain viable because of dependable refrigeration. Millions avoid deadly intestinal bacteria, due to refrigerators and freezers, and water that is sterilized and piped in large measure because of electricity. 

American families live in houses that are built from stronger materials and to higher standards, because of electricity. Tens of millions have been warned of natural disasters, and given time to flee, thanks to radios and televisions.

Environmentalists talk glibly about replacing America's 600-plus coal-fired power plants, and the 2 billion megawatt-hours of electricity they generate annually. But with what?

Most greens detest nuclear power as much as they hate coal. They want to dismantle dams, not build new ones. They oppose drilling for natural gas that could partially substitute for coal, and fuel essential backup generators for wind farms. They support geothermal energy in theory, but rarely in practice.

They oppose construction of new state-of-the-art coal-fired plants that America needs to supply more baseload power, to serve a growing population and electricity-hungry products and equipment of every description. Most do support wind energy – and it must also play a role.

However, right now, wind turbines provide a mere 1% of all US electricity. Wind power leader Texas gets just 2% of its electricity from breezes – versus 36% from coal. On blistering summer afternoons, when they most need reliable air-conditioners, Texans can count on wind turbines to generate at only 9% of their installed capacity, because that's when the wind blows least. (Compare that to 80-95% reliability for coal, gas and nuclear.)

How exactly will Texas replace 36% of its electricity with renewable energy? How exactly will Indiana and North Dakota replace the 94% of the low-cost electricity that they get from coal?

What happens to all those benefits when coal power is legislated, regulated, litigated, priced or cap-and-traded to the sidelines? To lives that are improved and saved with that electricity?

A little specificity, moral clarity and social responsibility would help here. We generally can't expect it from environmental activists – who excel at denigrating and opposing energy, but do little to generate anything but hot air and political power.

However, we should expect, and demand, clear answers from judges, elected representatives and unelected government regulators. That's the essence of ethics and social responsibility.

If we are going to end this recession, retain American jobs and living standards, and rejuvenate our economy, we will need vast quantities of electricity from coal – and every other source – now and for decades to come. The rest of the world also needs coal, to lift people out of poverty and save lives.

In impoverished countries, two billion people rarely or never have electricity. Four million infants, children and parents die every year from lung infections – caused by smoke, soot and other pollutants from open fires that heat their homes and cook their meager food, because they don't have electricity. Two million more perish from intestinal diseases, caused by unsafe water and spoiled food, because they lack refrigeration, sanitation and water treatment.

Radical environmentalists trumpet the exaggerated death count from producing electricity here in the United States. But they callously battle every proposal to build coal, gas or hydroelectric projects in these destitute countries.

24,000 speculative deaths versus six million very real deaths is hardly a fair tradeoff.

As we usher in 2009, may America and all nations resolve to implement policies that honestly reflect the costs, benefits and power-generating capabilities of traditional and alternative energy options that exist in the real world. ESR

Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power ∙ Black death.

 

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