On June 1, 2018 President Trump directed Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take all necessary steps to stop the closure of coal-fired power plants on national security grounds. This directive was issued simultaneously with the release of a draft memo arguing that the reliability of the nation’s power grid will be threatened if coal-fired plants are allowed to disappear through market forces that now make them the most expensive method to generate electricity. Trump’s directive was roundly criticized by many as an unprecedented intrusion into the market for electricity that “picks winners and losers,” something Republicans have long criticized Democrats for doing. But none of the debate about Trump’s directive has focused on the undeniable fact that small particulate matter emitted from coal-fired power plants is killing thousands of Americans each year.
The West Virginia Congressional delegation predictably cheered Trump’s directive, continuing their decades-long pandering to Big Coal and the fiction that coal mining creates significant employment in West Virginia. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said “I am very supportive of the administration’s decision to take action to preserve our coal-fired and nuclear power plants.” Sen. Joe Manchin actually took credit for Trump’s directive, saying “I am glad President Trump and his administration are considering my idea to use the Defense Production Act to save coal-fired power plants with emissions controls and protect our national security.”
Surely our Congressional delegation and the many Republican opponents of Obama’s Clean Power Plan know in their heart of hearts that climate change is a real threat and that because it is, in part, man-made it can be slowed by changes in our behavior now. One scientist recently quipped that to argue that the Earth’s rapid warming in the last decades is not man-made is like arguing that the Earth is flat.
These politicians are not stupid. Instead, what they are is calculating. The problem is that policy action now to reduce carbon dioxide emissions has immediate negative effects on the coal and electric power industries, their investors and their employees. This immediate negative is balanced against uncertain future benefits like avoiding sea level rise. Because these benefits will mostly inure to future generations, they can today be more easily ignored, minimized or dismissed as fraudulent. When it comes to climate change action, the voters in a coal state like West Virginia can scream louder about present pain, with some justification.
All this makes it harder to understand why climate change activists do not focus their arguments on the harmful effects of coal-fired power generation that are occurring now. These harmful effects are not the result of carbon dioxide (CO2) or even the other harmful greenhouse gasses that are emitted from power plants. They are the direct and measurable result of the tiny particulate matter produced by burning coal that rolls out of the tall stacks, spreading death downwind of these power plants.
Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is another harmful by-product of burning coal, partly responsible for fine particles in the air. These fine particles are linked with acid rain and smog. As evidence began to tightly link increased levels of SO2 with the burning of coal in the 1970s, the electric and coal industries denied the link and questioned the motives of those investigating the link. Sound familiar?
But in 1990 the Acid Rain Program adopted by Congress required power plants to cut their SO2 emissions in half by 2010. The technology used for this was the installation of scrubbers. Since then, this program and other regulatory action have dramatically reduced SO2 emissions and have done so at a lower cost than even environmentalists predicted.
Despite a reduction of emissions of around 50% since 1980, power-plant particulate matter, mostly from SO2, was still estimated to be responsible for 15,000 premature deaths in 2010.
The main health effect of SO2 is to impair the function of the upper respiratory system. High concentrations of sulfur dioxide can affect breathing, cause respiratory illnesses, and aggravate existing heart and lung diseases. Exposure at very low concentrations can irritate the lungs and throat and cause bronchitis. Exposure to low levels of SO2 over a long period depletes the respiratory system’s ability to defend against bacteria and foreign particles. Particularly sensitive groups include children, the elderly, people with asthma, and those with heart or lung disease.
Soot emitted by coal-fired power plants doubles down on the effects of SO2. Soot is associated with chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, cardiovascular effects like heart attacks, and premature death. US coal power plants emitted 197,286 tons of small soot particles in 2014.
The risk of death from air pollution caused by burning coal is not evenly distributed throughout the United States. In fact, West Virginia has the second highest number of deaths per capita in the country behind Ohio and just ahead of Pennsylvania. One large, inefficient West Virginia power plant in Pleasants County is itself estimated to be responsible for 40 deaths, 65 heart attacks and 630 asthma attacks.
In February 2018, First Energy Corp. announced a decision to deactivate the Pleasants Power Station in early 2019. Following this, Sen. Joe Manchin wrote to Energy Secretary Perry about the national security implications of allowing coal-fired plants to be closed, and specifically mentioned the Pleasants Power Station. There is considerable speculation in the West Virginia press that Trump’s directive to Secretary Perry will result in the salvation of the Pleasants operation.
In her 2003 book, Coal, A Human History, Barbara Freese describes how the requirements of the British coal mining industry led to the development of the steam engine followed by the railroad. These developments in turn produced much more coal, which itself then fueled the Industrial Revolution. The process was replicated in the United States. She asks rhetorically where we would be without coal and the revolution it created. Her answer is that we would have developed as an international society more slowly but perhaps in ways that we would find more satisfying today. All this, of course, is wistfulness.
Our political leaders need to realize that there are terrible consequences from burning coal to generate electric power. Most of the attention from environmental activists is focused on climate change created by CO2. But if we all pay attention to the fact that coal is killing us – now – we may be able to overcome the arguments of those with a stake in coal who claim that climate change is a false crisis created by the environmental left. The deaths of our children and elderly is no false crisis.