The costs of coal

 

A controversial new report on the economics of Powder River Basin coal was written by a University of Wyoming economist -- and paid for by the Wyoming Mining Association. As you might expect, the report provides some boosterish facts about coal:

  • The Powder River Basin, which stretches across 20,000 square miles of Wyoming and Montana, boasts nearly nine times the energy resources of Saudi Arabia
  • Annually, it would take one of the following to replace the energy produced by burning PRB coal:
    • 95 1,000-megawatt capacity nuclear power plants operating at 85 percent capacity.
    • 177 hydroelectric plants the size of Hoover dam producing 4 billion kilowatts an hour per year.
    • 201,922 wind turbines each operating at 2 megawatts.

But Dustin Bleizeffer, the Casper Star-Tribune's crack energy reporter, finds that many of the report's assertions don't quite hold water. The report does not consider coal's contribution to climate change, ignoring both the economic and environmental effects of greenhouse gas emissions from coal burning. It also does not consider the costs of the other pollutants produced.

The report claims that cheap energy from coal actually reduces the economy's carbon intensity. "Lower electricity costs encourage the adoption of advanced electricity-using technologies that reduce the direct use of fossil fuels and increase end-use energy efficiency in a wide range of applications," writes report author Tim Considine.

But critics counter that argument, Bleizeffer reports:

"I don't see how burning more (Powder River Basin) coal promotes clean energy innovation. That's like saying more crime promotes better crime-solving abilities. The real innovation drivers are climate, environmental, and economic policies that favor clean energy," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.

 Another example:

In arguing other societal benefits of coal-based electrical generation, Considine wrote, "Indeed, China is providing a template of how coal can be used to pull people out of poverty and lift an entire society to higher living standards."

Although coal has fueled an expanding middle class in China, Considine's statement isn't entirely accurate, said David Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs. Millions upon millions of Chinese still live in poverty and suffer from pollution from coal.

"Coal in China is a very two-edged sword, as you know, providing both a source of wealth and a source of pollution, illness, loss of life," Wendt said.

Meanwhile, anti-coal momentum seems to be gaining ground. Check out this Huffington Post op-ed, "Coal's future looking murky." And see our Writers on the Range column "Wyoming hits a green roadblock".

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