Kicking the Coal Habit

America may be coming to grips with the dark side of our cheapest, most abundant energy source, but a plan to unload it on Asia threatens to poison our planet.

What is the future of coal-fired power? Is it a “dead man walking,” as defined by Kevin Parker, Deutsche Bank’s global head of asset management, who notes that banks won’t finance it, insurance companies won’t insure it, and the EPA is after it? Or is it an economic elixir that will rouse comatose Americans from the canvas like Rocky Balboa and “together . . . power the next great comeback [with] clean coal,” as depicted in the TV ads of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity?

Probably neither. 

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One of the strongest voices for coal-industry reform is Ann Weeks, litigation counsel for the Clean Air Task Force, a non-profit focused on protecting air and climate. She offers this: “The problem with wind and solar is that they’re intermittent—the wind doesn’t blow all the time, and the sun doesn’t shine all the time. You have to store the extra, and we don’t have that technology. I think we have to resign ourselves to finding a solution that cleans up coal.”


But we already have that in “clean coal,” right? 

Not hardly. “Clean coal” is a term concocted for the industry by R&R Partners, the ad agency that, by hatching the equally brazen untruth “What happens here stays here,” helped Sin City seduce gullible tourists into gambling away their money and marriages. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition’s Vivian Stockman provides “clean coal’s” best definition: “the mother of all oxymorons.” 

Among the costs of mining, processing, and burning coal are mountains, prairies, rivers, lakes, fish, wildlife, livestock, people, and climate. And while pollution-control technology captures some of the poisons and carcinogens that mix with air and water, calling treated coal waste “clean” is the equivalent of settling out solids from municipal sewage, piping what’s left into public reservoirs, and labeling it “sanitized effluent.” 


America is moving away from coal. Three years ago plans were under way for at least 150 new coal plants, but not one has broken ground since—largely because natural gas is cheaper and cleaner. Our existing coal plants tend to be old and decrepit, and expensive and difficult to retrofit with required pollution-control technology. In fact the Associated Press reports that this will cause the inevitable shutdown of 32 facilities (mostly coal-fired) and the possible shutdown of 36 others. 

Still, the world’s largest private-sector coal producer, Peabody Energy, may be right when it proclaims that “coal’s best days are ahead.” This is because it and other companies plan to sell strip-mined coal to Asia. They propose to move it by train to ports in Washington and Oregon from the Powder River Basin in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana—an area the size of West Virginia. Most of the basin’s springs and shallow aquifers are in coal seams, and are poisoned and desiccated by strip mining. As a result, much of the cost of vastly expanded strip mining for the Asian market would be borne by wildlife, farmers, and ranchers. 

Peabody Energy is the main player in a plan to annually extract an additional 50 million tons of Powder River Basin coal for sale to Asia. The company claims that port expansion near Bellingham, Washington (at Cherry Point), and construction of new rail lines would create “8,400 direct, indirect, and induced jobs” and inject $900 million into the economy. Similar though smaller projects are planned at Longview and Grays Harbor in Washington and Coos Bay, Port St. Helens, and near Boardman in Oregon. 

China, where most of the coal would go, is building the equivalent of two 500-megawatt coal-fired plants each week. Although it produces twice as much coal as the United States, it has gone from a net coal exporter in 2008 to a net importer today. 

Writing in Yale Environment 360, an online magazine, Jonathan Thompson draws an apt comparison between exporting coal and exporting tobacco, calling coal “the cigarette of our new age.” A quarter-century ago the tobacco industry was also comatose on the canvas. Medical evidence had given the lie to its mantra that smoking and cancer weren’t linked; no longer could it advertise on television or radio; and on its very packaging it had to warn customers against using its product.Then it found a market in Asia (mostly China) so lucrative as to “confound the imagination,” as a Philip Morris vice president effused. Tobacco companies sponsor at least 100 elementary schools in China, where 16 million kids under 15 smoke. “Talent comes from hard work—tobacco helps you become talented,” reads foot-high, gilt lettering on the side of China’s Sichuan Tobacco Hope Elementary.

Coal isn’t far behind firearm homicides  or drunk driving in killing people, annually causing 24,000 heart attacks, 217,600 asthma attacks, and dispatching 13,200 Americans, according to the Clean Air Task Force. And the toll is undoubtedly higher in China, where citizens are demonstrating against coal power by the tens of thousands.

So mortality and morbidity are what we’d be exporting along with our coal. 

To learn what Americans can expect from the deal, I visited the Powder River Basin in February. From Billings I drove two hours east to Colstrip, Montana, an 88-year-old community of 2,300 built because of the adjacent Rosebud strip mine—now 50 square miles and which feeds a midtown power plant owned, in part, by PPL Generation. The “city,” as it calls itself, would have been “Coalstrip” had not a spelling error permanently disappeared the “a.” 

Colstrip residents overwhelmingly support the mine and plant. Less sanguine are other Montanans who depend less on coal but who pay for it in fish, wildlife, livestock, and quality of life. This seems especially unjust because Montana’s hunters, anglers, and ranchers (more often than not the same people) are arguably the most enlightened in the nation. For example, this group and the wildlife managers they’ve hired have broken with counterparts in Wyoming and Idaho in accepting wolves.And represented by one of our most progressive state fish and wildlife agencies, they’ve shown the world that superimposing hatchery trout on wild populations is wasteful and counterproductive (see “Trout Are Wildlife, Too,” September-October 2002). 

If you figure in real costs, coal is a net loss for Montanans, and even if you don’t, much of the alleged profit migrates out of state. The mine is owned by Westmoreland Coal Co., based in Colorado. The plant is primarily owned by Washington’s Puget Sound Energy. The three main companies proposing to expand strip mining and haul Powder River Basin Coal to the West Coast are Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, both based in Missouri, and Ambre Energy, based in Australia.


month before I arrived in Colstrip I’d asked Jesse Noel of Western Energy (a Westmoreland subsidiary) for a tour of the Rosebud mine, explaining that while he wouldn’t like my article, he’d like it better if I could get the company’s perspective and not just that of the local populace. He said he’d “run it up the flagpole,” then called back to say his company wasn’t “interested” in showing me its operation because “the last few articles have not shown us in a favorable light.” 

Fortunately (for me, at least) the Sierra Club’s Mike Scott agreed to give me a tour of the mine. Scott, 32, doesn’t fit the popular image of a Sierra Club official. The tall, athletic goat rancher and big-game hunter came to the club three years ago from the Northern Plains Resource Council, a group formed by local farmers and ranchers to stop mine development and resulting power plants from completely destroying their way of life. Scott knows roads that Western Energy can’t legally block and that offer a true picture of open-pit strip mining as opposed to the sanitized view the company showed journalists when it was on friendlier terms with them. 

Confronting us was a flatland version of the mountaintop removal I’d seen in West Virginia. “Overburden,” the industry’s word for wildflowers, grasses, forbs, shrubs, trees, and topsoil, had been bulldozed away. Two-hundred-foot-high draglines bit into eight-story-deep coal seams blown to rubble with ammonium nitrate. Giant trucks with tires 12 feet in diameter hauled the rubble to be ground to sugar-fine dust blasted into perpetual fireballs under PPL’s four boilers at the rate of a railroad-car load every five minutes.

Here and there we encountered pools of water. Companies can’t let it sit in their mines, so they get state permits to divert it to rivers—in this case tributaries of the Yellowstone and Tongue. One of the many health threats of strip mining is “fugitive dust,” and on this day it swirled around us in yellow clouds. Not only does it accumulate in lung tissue of humans and wildlife, it pollutes wetlands, streams, and lakes. The industry tells locals that it’s safe, that they shouldn’t worry about it—and to avoid it. 

A strip-mining company must post a bond to partly cover costs of reclamation should it go bust. And the bond isn’t released until work passes muster with the Interior Department (on federal land) or the appropriate state agency if it’s on state land. In Montana one-tenth of one percent of the strip-mined land has qualified for bond release; in Wyoming the figure is four percent. As we gazed out over the vast moonscape in front of us, Scott declared: “To me this is just as bad as mountaintop removal. But western coal mining is framed as somehow more benign. I think that’s because no one lives here and it’s easier to hide.”

Despite the devastation we encountered, Montana is pristine compared with Wyoming. Wyoming provides 40 percent of the nation’s coal, Montana about 4 percent.

Back in town we inspected the power plant. Three weeks earlier I’d asked David Hoffman, PPL’s state director of external affairs, for an inside tour, making the same pitch to him I’d made to Western Energy—that my article would offend less if I could get a firsthand look at the company’s operation and meet with the folks who ran it. He declined. 

Four stacks belched smoke to a cloudless sky. The two shorter ones topped boilers and 358-megawatt generators built in 1975 and 1976 and designed for 30-year lifespans. The boilers and 778-megawatt generators under each of the taller stacks were constructed in 1984 and 1986. An analysis of EPA data done by the Associated Press shows that the plant is the nation’s eighth-most-prolific greenhouse-gas producer. 

Scrubbers, which saturate coal smoke with water, remove some of the poison-laden ash. The contaminated water is then shot into the plant’s “ash ponds.” By any definition coal ash is hazardous waste. But when it appeared that the EPA would designate it as such and thereby require the industry to invest in safe disposal, coal ash got designated as mere “solid waste.” 

The plant’s certificate from the state Board of Natural Resources and Conservation required that the ash ponds not leak. So when they began poisoning entire aquifers then-owner Montana Power got a court to allow “seepage,” as if this were somehow different than “leakage.” PPL claims to have lined some of its ash ponds with plastic, but leakage (seepage) appears to be ongoing. Fifty-seven citizens sued PPL for damage to their water, collecting $25 million in 2008. 

Water for steam, pumped from the Yellowstone River, is stored in a “surge pond” that overflows into Armells Creek and, according to residents, drowns cottonwoods and wipes out productive ranchland for miles to the west by drawing salts from the earth and converting grass to cattails. 


"Coal is cheap,” Rosebud mine’s neighbor Nick Golder told me at his ranch just north of Lame Deer, “because the industry doesn’t pay its bills.” Golder started ranching here in 1947 and since then has spent more time than he can afford working to save the local livestock industry from the mine and power plant. “Ranchers are independent people,” he said. “But we saw we had to join together, and we formed the Northern Plains Resource Council. Anyone in the proximity of the strip mine has lost water. If reclamation was done properly, it would restore aquifers, too. Downwind of the power plant grass is stunted and won’t head out [go to seed]. Upwind it’s mostly fine. Misting [spraying ash water heavenward to evaporate it] puts the stuff back in the air that they took out in the first place. We laugh at a dog for chasing its tail, but at least he doesn’t pay to do it.”

Perhaps because of past overgrazing the Powder River Basin is often perceived as desiccated and dead, but it is rich wildlife habitat with rolling hills cloaked in grasses, shrubs, and trees. I was reminded of what’s at stake when Golder’s ranching partner, Brad Sauer, drove me in his pickup truck through backland too rough for my rental car. Barely visible on distant slopes, white pronghorn rumps mixed with black steer backs like rice and beans. Mule deer filed across ridgetops. Raptors soared. A cock pheasant sprinted into sage. At an ancient homestead a coal seam showed in a rock formation three feet above ground. We dismounted to inspect golden sandstone spires inscribed with Indian petroglyphs and 19th-century rancher graffiti. To our south rose Deer Medicine Rocks, on which Sitting Bull, inspired by a prolonged fast, carved his accurate vision of Custer’s approach. 

Above the basin’s shallow coal deposits dwell cougars, bobcats, bears, elk, deer, black-tailed prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and 250 bird species. In the words of Mike Scott, this is “the iconic West that so many people on the coasts have seen in westerns but never get to experience—a landscape that breaks your heart with its desolate beauty and abundance of life.”

In Forsyth I met Clint McRae, another Rosebud neighbor, rancher, and Northern Plains Resource Council activist. When I asked him how he felt about the coal around his ranch going to China, he said: “If it’s for a plant in the United States, that’s one thing. But they’re talking about using condemnation to take my private land [for a rail line] so they can haul coal to a communist country. This is a game changer.”

McRae views what’s planned for the Powder River Basin in the same light as TransCanada Corporation’s proposal to seize the property of U.S. citizens and endanger them and their wildlife by piping the planet’s dirtiest oil across America’s middle for sale to China (see “Tarred and Feathered,” July-August 2011).

“There are people furious with Obama for calling the bluff of Congress and taking another look at the XL pipeline,” he declared. “He did a gutsy thing. Finally someone stood up. Republicans used to represent property rights; they used to represent me. Now they represent multibillion-dollar corporations. . . . Go to any ranch in Montana that has been there for 100 years like this one, and you’ll find one common thread—water quantity and quality. The mine and ash ponds are wreaking havoc with ranching operations. It wouldn’t be this way if the state and federal government enforced existing laws.”

But enforcement rarely happens. For example, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has the authority to force PPL to clean up its ash ponds and to fine it $10,000 for every day it contaminates ground and surface water. It has done neither. And ranchers are suing the department for allowing Western Energy to dewater and poison their springs and wells.One of the litigants, Doug McRae (Clint’s cousin), reports that six of his cattle died when they drank from a spring polluted by mine runoff.

This hasn’t stopped Montana’s governor, Brian Schweitzer, from busily promoting the Asian coal market, and from preparing to sell the coal under its remote, wildlife-rich Otter Creek area. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the mining, transport, and burning of that coal will foul the planet with 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Former Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal is now a director of Arch Coal. And the current Wyoming governor, Matt Mead, a strip-mining enthusiast, “recognizes” Asia’s need for our coal. 

But the main threat comes not from Montana or even Wyoming. It comes from the federal government, which owns the vast majority of the coal reserves in both states. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who proclaims that “the realities of climate change require us to change how we manage the land, water, fish, and wildlife,” has begun selling mining rights to an estimated 3.7 billion tons of Powder River Basin coal.


Meanwhile, Bellingham officials and chamber-of-commerce types whoop it up for port expansion to facilitate coal export to Asia while simultaneously bragging about awards the city has received from the EPA and Natural Resources Defense Council for quitting fossil fuel. And they excoriate Bellingham’s medical and environmental communities for voicing concerns about disruption from expanded coal-train traffic, increased global warming, massive coal dust pollution, and damage to fisheries. 

Seattle Audubon director Shawn Cantrell says this: “It doesn’t make sense on many levels—from climate change to extraction problems to transport problems. We don’t want these mega-trains with the volumes they’re talking about coming through our communities. This is a particularly bad product because there’s so much coal dust that just coats everything. We’re going to have a monumental fight because coal is still huge in parts of the country. Washington can lead the trend on the export issue.” 

Like the city, the state has committed to renewable energy, and it has legislated strict greenhouse-gas limits that include a forced shutdown of its single, though enormous, coal-fired power plant by 2025. In addition, the plant’s owner, TransAlta, must contribute $55 million for economic development and investments in clean energy and energy efficiency. 

But the boosters don’t see a problem with exporting greenhouse gases that threaten the entire planet or exporting poisons that will damage human and non-human life not only in Asia but the United States, especially Washington—one of the closest downwind states. The hypocrisy is breathtaking, reminiscent of America’s banning DDT domestically but clearing it for export—a statement to the world that we considered this carcinogen too dangerous for everyone save foreigners.

“If we don’t make money poisoning Asians, other countries will,” is the basic pitch. Summarizing in The Seattle Times, Ken Oplinger, president/CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and Chris Johnson, vice president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, write: “Stopping the terminal will not stop China from using coal; the world has plenty. … Frankly, what we should be concentrating on is taking care of our local environment.” A similar moral case could be made for whacking a key witness because Bugs Moran had already put out the hit and someone else would have collected the fee anyway. 

Actually, providing China with the world’s cheapest coal will merely ensure a long-term commitment to it while removing incentives to improve plant efficiency and seek alternate fuels, all of which are cleaner. There is nothing “startling” about this, notes natural resources watchdog and former University of Montana economics professor Thomas Power. “Lower prices and costs encourage consumption. Higher prices and costs discourage consumption.”


When all is said, however, there’s some cause for optimism. Public outrage in Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and Ore-gon is mounting to the point that at least one expert is betting against major export of Powder River Basin coal. “Most folks see it as a lose–lose proposition for the environment and local economies,” remarks Nancy Hirsh, policy director for the Northwest Energy Coalition, an alliance of environmental groups, civic and human-services organizations, and businesses, including utilities. “I don’t think there will be a lot of success because of the public outcry. Oregon and Washington have commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. And yet here we’re going to grant permits for coal exports and transport our problem across the ocean? It just doesn’t ring true to public-policy makers.”

While Hirsh hardly articulates the majority opinion, other encouraging news cannot be debated. The few U.S. coal plants on the drawing board face daunting requirements. For example, while Southwestern Electric Power Company still plans to build its Turk plant in Arkansas (See “Smoke on the Water,” January-February 2008), a legal settlement forced by Audubon and the Sierra Club in December 2011 requires the company to retire its dirty Welsh 2 plant in Texas, create 400 megawatts of wind or solar power, contribute $10 million for land conservation and energy efficiency, and limit additional plants and transmission lines. 

Across the nation students, some wearing “Kick-Ash” skivvies, are demonstrating against on-campus coal plants. At Michigan State University, students staged a sit-in to protest health hazards posed to themselves and East Lansing residents by the school’s coal-fired power plant. Twenty colleges and universities have promised to quit coal by signing on to the Sierra Club’s Campuses Beyond Coal initiative.

Finally, the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and CrossState Air Pollution Rule will annually prevent as many as 46,000 premature deaths and provide at least $150 billion in benefits, at least according to the EPA. And the agency recently announced carbon-dioxide limits for new power plants and major upgrades.

While we cannot wean ourselves from coal anytime soon, we’re phasing it out. Despite the “clean-coal” media blitz, Americans, from liberal environmentalists to conservative ranchers, now recognize it as a filthy, 19th-century fuel source whose days are clearly numbered.


What You Can Do

Conserve electricity and make your home energy efficient. Tell your legislators to support the EPA’s efforts to make coal plants safer for fish, wildlife, and people. For more information on coal-fired generation and proposed export of coal to Asia, go to