The Coal Reality

When I was 16, I said I will not drive a vehicle until the oil crisis is over. Now I am 32 and [I only take mass transit]; I figure that my only consumption of oil is communal and is going to be consumed anyway. For example, if I ride an airplane or greyhound, the plane and the greyhound are going to consume the same amount of oil whether or not I get a ticket — unless I am the only passenger– which is unlikely. I consume zero oil for my personal use. I do not want to be responsible at all for the oil crisis. But what about coal? My local energy company produces electricity almost solely from coal. Please send me information on the impact of coal.

G-d bless,
Brian D. Schuh
Answer from Canfei Nesharim’s Science Advisory Board: 
The oil crisis of the 1990s, to which the questioner was referring in his initial commitment, was about a shortage of oil in the US and the dependency on foreign oil to meet the needs of domestic use.  This is still true today.  It is not true for coal, as the US has a large reserve. Importantly, coal does cost less than oil or natural gas. Due to its abundance in the US, it provides the largest percentage of electricity in the US.
However, from an environmental perspective, the use of coal is generally more problematic than oil, though some of the more recent controls have decreased the emissions.  Coal has a reputation for being the “dirtiest” of the fossil fuels. The environmental effects of coal mining and power generation from coal-fired power plants are numerous and can be severe.
Coal is mined in two ways. It can be taken from deep mines, which have many hazards for the workers. Or, if the coal is close to the surface, it is “strip-mined,” a method which has major impacts on the land and on water supplies.  Strip mining is a method in which the overburden (earth and rocks) is stripped away completely to reach the underlying coal or other minerals. Surface mining of coal has increased steadily to the point where, in the United States, over 60% of the coal is obtained from such mining activities.
Coal mining presents numerous environmental problems. It generates acids, including sulfuric acid that can leach into streams even after the mine has ceased operation, as rain falls on mine tailing, the large piles of crushed rock that are left over after has been extracted, and chemicals are discharged into the soil. Coal mining dramatically changes landscapes, often destroying forests and wildlife habitats and promoting soil erosion, apart from the water pollution it generates. Mountaintop removal mining has destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Appalachia. Reclamation processes are required in the US once the mine is closed, but during the mining, and unless a very conscientious post mining effort is planned for the reclamation, the areas are still adversely affected.  Proper disposal of the ash and waste from coal is another consideration. Power plant fly and bottom ash also contain numerous toxic chemicals that have to be contained.
Mining releases methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. Particulates, dust, and soot released during mining and coal transport pose health risks to miners and others. The emissions from coal burning are typically worse than from oil. Coal combustion in coal-fired power plants produces oxides of carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen, many of which are toxic. Further, some of these either react with oxygen in the atmosphere, creating highly reactive chemical compounds that can damage human health, or react with water droplets to generate acids that fall to earth as “acid rain,” acidifying lakes and streams and damaging wildlife, agriculture, and buildings. While the sulfur from coal combustion can be contained via flue gas scrubbing systems, carbonic acids cannot be so easily handled. Nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons released by coal combustion can lead to the formation of urban smog. Small particle pollution contributes to bronchitis and reduced lung function and has been associated with premature death. Coal combustion is one of the main sources of emissions of highly toxic heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic. Again, careful control of the emissions and the use of low sulfur coal have reduced some of the more problematic emissions from coal, but the level of pollution control may vary between individual power plants.
Finally, of increasingly grave concern, combustion of coal for electricity generation is a main source of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, a major factor in global climate change. Coal is the largest emitter of C02 among all the major combustion fuel sources, emitting nearly twice as much as natural gas or oil.
Because of the relative abundance of coal in the United States and many other countries (including China), the use of coal to generate power sets up a dilemma between energy security/autonomy and environmental protection. China’s exponentially increasing coal burning, much of it in connection with aluminum smelting, is generating enormous carbon emissions and other types of pollution whose effects will continue to be felt around the world and threaten to overwhelm other progress made on containing greenhouse gas emissions. In China and other countries, if coal is to be used as a main future power source, its combustion must be coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that captures the emitted carbon dioxide and sequesters it underground. This technology exists but its further development and implementation must be greatly accelerated. Recent problems, cutbacks, and lack of progress in implementing CCS in the US, despite presidential fanfare within the recent years, is disheartening. The other advanced technology recommended for coal use is coal gasification, which is much more energy-efficient and allows for greater control and filtration of the damaging pollutants compared to conventional coal combustion.
Our questioner argued that mass transit causes no environmental impact because ”the seat will be empty if I do not use it.” This is a rationalization.  If enough people stopped taking a bus or a plane to a particular destination then the commercial organization running that bus or plane (unless mandated by the government because it represents an underserved area) would have fewer (or no) buses or planes going to that destination.  However, pursuing such a policy may be untenable for many people.  It is important to recognize the importance of petrochemicals (oil-based products) in our society, as they have facilitated a technological revolution, which has improved our lives in many ways. The electrical power and the cars, buses, plane, trains and trucks — while affecting the environment — have provided us with more food, better health and increased communication/opportunities to visit people and places.  Moving to a society without a combustion engine or homes without access to electricity would greatly diminish our life, as is apparent in the parts of the world that still have no or limited access to these.  For example, in regions of the world where there is no electric power and cooking is done on open fires in a home the indoor air pollution levels and associated respiratory disease are much worse than in places where other options for cooking exist. While we continue to enjoy the many benefits of these combustible fuels, it important to ensure that environmental controls are put in place during their production.
Although the questioner’s intent to avoid oil use is admirable, it is worth noting the degree to which we all use petrochemicals, either directly or indirectly. Whether it is the food container for our yogurt or water bottles, many medicines, the insulation in our homes or winter jackets, or the transportation required to get those products to market, we all use oil every day. Currently, at least, in our modern world, it is not possible to live a truly “zero oil” lifestyle.

To make a real impact, ask your local power company which technologies they employ and measures they take to minimize the environmental effects of generating your electricity from coal. Voice your concern over carbon dioxide emissions especially and ask them whether they have any future plans for implementing carbon capture and storage (CCS). Ask your coal power plants if good controls (BACT-Best Available Control Technology) are being used and advocate for them if not.  Also, some communities offer the consumers the choice of what electric provider will provide the electricity and a choice can be made based on what types of fuel is used to produce the electricity with a slightly greater charge for obtaining electricity from a more environmentally friendly choice.  For example, here are some web sites that highlight this for different regions of the country:

New Jersey

New York: 


The problem with focusing on your local power company is that much of the air pollution from coal-fired power plants is regional, national, or even international in scope (for example, fine particle pollution and CO2) and must be addressed on those levels. Therefore, exploring these challenges at the policy level is also an important way to make a difference.
Thank you for your important question, and keep up the good environmental practices.
Dr. David Goldblatt, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich

Dr. Clifford Weisel, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, University Medicine & Dentistry of NJ