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September 25, 2012

How Coal Is Like a Box Turtle

Coal Plants

I remember one time on a nature hike we came across a box turtle. The naturalist told us that the box turtle might be extinct, only it didn't know it yet. This odd state of affairs is because, for various reasons, the turtles seem not to be reproducing. No matter how many of them there are today, if there aren't any babies, they are effectively extinct.

That's the case with coal-fired power plants in America. There are hundreds of them in existence, and they still supply a third of our electricity, but nobody is building any new ones.

This has been true for the last few years, which is why critics of the Environmental Protection Agency smacks of political opportunism. Not that anyone would accuse politicians of that.

Of course, there are differences between turtles and coal plants. For one thing, everybody likes turtles. Coal plants, not so much. Over the last decade, all across the country, communities have banded together to retire the dirtiest coal plants and stop plants from being built, citing health costs from breathing toxic pollutants and eating mercury-contaminated fish, the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, and the dealing of toxic ash that is the primary waste product of coal burning.

But I think the real reason no one wants a new coal plant has to do with an ad campaign the coal industry ran concerning the myth of "clean coal." The coal industry figured it was just setting the record straight. "Coal keeps the lights on!" they announced.

And Americans, who thought their electricity came from little switches on the wall, were appalled.

"We're burning what?" they asked each other. And that was the beginning of the end for coal.

Still, what Americans want, and what actually happens, doesn't always coincide, so let’s move on to a second cause of coal's decline: money. That's right. If you really want to find the culprit behind the death of coal, you have to finger the free market. Coal is simply getting more costly.

It's far more convenient for critics to blame the Environmental Protection Agency, but really, if anyone is waging a war against coal, it’s the free market. But that makes for a lousy sound bite.

-- Ivy Main, Sierra Club's Virginia Chapter Vice Chair

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