A Note on Coal

Steve Hayward

A commenter on the India story posted up this morning wonders why anyone should be “pro-coal,” because “By any standard, coal is horrible for the environment. New Delhi’s air is the most polluted in the WORLD. More coal won’t help. Coal releases mercury in the environment, creates acid rain, etc. Climate change aside, coal is awful and should not be celebrated…”

First, it is not about being “pro-coal” or any other energy source; it’s about being “pro-realism.” The energy hungry developing world is going to use the cheapest form of scalable energy available, and right now that means coal (though natural gas may give it a run for its money—already is in the U.S.). And the complete tradeoffs—even the health tradeoffs—are favorable, even with additional air pollution.

Actually, climate change aside, coal is terrific. It is not clear to me that coal is the chief cause of the bad air in India’s cities. My understanding is that the hundreds of thousands of two-stroke engines on all the scooters they use in India’s cities are much worse (and they plan to replace them over time with much better two-stroke engines).

As another commenter said, in the U.S. we have cleaned up conventional air pollution from coal through a variety of means—“scrubbers,” low-sulfur coal, etc. Just look at the chart below: in the U.S. we have more than doubled coal use since the 1970s, but cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 58%.  I don’t know whether India is building advanced coal power plants with our emissions control technology; I’d be surprised if they aren’t.

Coal So2

But our coal might be even cleaner but for environmentalists. Yes—you read that right. Here’s something to ponder: which nation has more efficiency and lower CO2 emitting coal-fired power plants: the U.S. or China? The answer is . . . drum roll please . . . China! I just last week came across the astounding chart below in a World Bank report about China:

China Coal

You need to look closely at this chart to understand how dramatic it is, and what it can tell us. The left axis measures the “thermal efficiency” (or “heat rate”) of coal-fired plants (this is comparable to the gas mileage of your car), and CO2 emissions in grams per kilowatt-hour{on the right axis}. You can see that the trendlines for the U.Ss. are basically flat, while China’s coal-fired power fleet has become much more efficient than the U.S. fleet over just the last half decade. What explains the difference? The U.S. isn’t building any new coal-fired power plants, because environmentalists have blocked them (last decade enviros celebrated blocking 10 new coal plants in Texas, for example); China is building new ones practically every week, and new ones are always better and more efficient than old ones. If we merely replaced our old coal plants with brand news ones, we’d lower CO2 emissions.

One feature of the Obama EPA greenhouse gas proposal is to increase the “heat rate” of American coal plants by 6%. I don’t know if that is a lot or not, and I wonder if trying to do so will trip up the whole “New Source Review” regulatory nightmare that has the perverse effect of deterring many coal plants from modernizing.

Second, the impact of coal on mercury levels is less than trivial. The EPA’s pending coal-mercury regulations predict total benefits estimated at . . . $6 million. (That’s the EPA’s own estimate.) Yes—that’s “million” with an M. A rounding error in these kind of calculations; probably less than the EPA’s paper clip budget. It’s almost like Dr. Evil became head of the EPA and said, “Give me a coal regulation that delivers benefits of six million dollars!” The EPA claims total benefits from the regulation of over $30 billion, but not from reducing mercury; rather, all of the benefits come from the co-benefit of reducing particulates. But we already have particulate regulations that are reducing particulates at a constant rate. (And even these benefits are questionable, because they are based on some very old epidemiology.) So the EPA’s mercury rules are just another back door way of trying to kill coal.


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