Top 5 "Clean Coal" Myths

Myth #1: "America has more than 200 years of available coal reserves." The United States is the ‘Saudi Arabia’ of coal.

As author Jeff Goodell reveals in his book “Big Coal,” the claim that the U.S. has 200 or 250 years of coal left is “based on old studies that haven't been updated since the '70s. Those studies themselves were based on studies from the '20s and '30s.”

Goodell points out that “we've been mining coal in this country for 150 years -- all the simple, high-quality, easy-to-get stuff is gone. What's left is buried beneath towns and national parks, or places that are difficult, expensive and dangerous to mine.”

The situation is likely far worse than the rosy picture the coal industry paints claiming centuries of abundant supply. Richard Heinberg, author of “Peak Everything,” cites an Energy Watch Group report to support his claim that U.S. coal production has already peaked:

"This forecast for a near-term peak in U.S. coal extraction flies in the face of frequently repeated statements that the nation has 200 years’ worth of coal reserves at current levels of consumption."

MYTH #2: We can capture carbon emissions from coal and bury them underground

Burying the carbon produced from the burning of coal, so called Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), isn't as simple as the coal industry would have us think.

New Scientist magazine recently provided a good overview of CCS technology. It quotes a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study called The Future of Coal, which concludes that, "the first commercial CCS plant won't be on stream until 2030 at the earliest."

Oil-giant Shell "doesn't foresee CCS being in widespread use until 2050."

In May, 2008 Greenpeace International released a comprehensive, in-depth report called "False Hope: Why Carbon capture and storage won't save the climate," detailing the fallacies of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

"Carbon capture and storage is a scam. It is the ultimate coal industry pipe dream,” said the report’s author, Emily Rochon, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace International. “Governments and businesses need to reduce their emissions—not search for excuses to keep burning coal.”



MYTH #3: Since 1970, emissions from coal power plants are down 35 percent, the air is cleaner and yet coal use tripled during that period.

The coal industry is correct that emissions from coal plants are down 35 percent since 1970.

But the claim that the air is cleaner is only true from a 1970s perspective - for those pollutants which were regulated under the Clean Air Act and related statutes – chiefly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, the two main components of smog. But since coal use has more than tripled since 1970, total pollution from coal plants has increased.
Mercury emissions from coal plants continue to climb, and since 1990, carbon dioxide emissions – the prime driver of global warming - rose 27 percent from coal plants alone.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), 24,000 people a year still die prematurely from pollution emitted at coal-fired power plants, in addition to a litany of other health effects that injure and impede hundreds of thousands of Americans. The ALA found that power plant pollution is responsible for 38,000 heart attacks, 12,000 hospital admissions and an additional 550,000 asthma attacks every year.


MYTH #4: There’s more mercury from “natural sources” than the coal industry releases, so there’s no reason to focus on reducing coal-related mercury emissions

Coal’s defenders often point to the “200,000 tons of mercury that already exist in the soils and seas of the planet” to downplay the idea that we should be concerned about the 48 tons of mercury that coal-fired plants emit per year.

But the fact that mercury exists in buried soils doesn’t mean that it has always contaminated the aquatic food chain and the hydrologic system.

In fact, the mercury bound in soils and geological strata largely stays put. Mercury levels in fish and humans have risen sharply in the past 200 years, concurrent with the burning of enormous quantities of coal which releases mercury into the atmosphere and contaminates our air and water.

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the amount of mercury in the atmosphere is estimated to have increased by 200% to 500% since the beginning of the industrial revolution, when coal use skyrocketed. The US Department of Energy (DOE) projects that mercury emissions will continue to rise.
This mercury quickly enters the aquatic food chain, transforming into methylmercury which is blamed for a litany of neurological impacts in infants and young children during their most vulnerable periods of brain and nervous system development.

MYTH #5: Coal mining creates jobs

Despite coal industry claims that coal mining creates lots of jobs, the truth is that coal mining employment has been declining for decades, due to increased use of machinery instead of manpower.

In West Virginia alone, coal mining employment has plummeted from 126,000 miners in 1948 (who produced 168 million tons of coal), to just 15,000 miners employed in 2005 (who, with the help of machinery, produced 128 million tons of coal).


Want to do more?

Check out our section on how you can fight "clean coal" in your community and online.

If not coal, then what?

Check out "There is a Better Way" on how renewable energy technology can power America.

Check out Greenpeace's new fact sheet on the Myth of Clean Coal