Friday, June 5, 2020
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Is coal clean? The president says it is.

In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump declared, “We have ended the war on beautiful clean coal.”

For the moment, assume there was a war in the first place. (There wasn’t, or at least, if there was, coal lost it a long time ago.) Is coal “beautiful” or “clean,” as Mr Trump claims it is?

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so in that sense, I suppose coal could be considered beautiful. Some people consider diamonds beautiful, and they’re also a stone made from carbon atoms in a slightly different matrix.

But our definition of “clean” isn’t so elusive. According to the US Department of Energy, some 83 percent of all major air pollutants that come out of power plants—including sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, toxic mercury, and dangerous soot particles—are from coal. But only about 43 percent of the power generated in the US comes from coal.

In other words, coal produces dirty pollutants at levels that are out of proportion with, by almost double, the amount of power coal-burning power plants produce.

CBS News reported that approval ratings from Mr Trump’s address were high, but one has to wonder what people were reacting to: the president clapping at his own remarks or the use of fighting words in describing unclean energy.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) produced in 2011

  • From burning coal: 6 million tons
  • From all other energy sources combined: 0.43 million tons

The US reduced the amount of electricity it produces from coal by 32 percent between 2006 and 2015, but the US has reduced SO2 emissions from the generation of electricity at power plants, including coal-burning plants, by 73 percent over the same decade.

The disproportionately significant reduction in SO2 emissions, including a 26-percent drop in SO2 emissions in the single year from 2014 to 2015, is due primarily to the installation of environmental equipment by US power plants in compliance with the federal Mercury and Air Toxics (MATS) rule.

Even with the reduction, though, coal still produces more SO2 than everything else combined. Way more. “Nearly all electricity-related SO2 emissions are associated with coal-fired generation,” the US Energy Information Administration reported yesterday.

I would conclude from yesterday’s post that coal isn’t sending quite as much pollution into the atmosphere as it once did, but the coal itself is just as dirty as it ever was. Our reduction in pollutants has resulted from the installation of environmental equipment, which occurred under the Obama administration rules.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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