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The Problem with Coal and Politicians

The EPA has been charged with reducing the pollutants released into the environment, but they are meeting opposition from power companies, politicians, and people who want cheap energy, though other people  and the environment may suffer the consequences.

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking a 95 percent reduction in emissions at three of Oklahoma’s coal-fired power plants. This has brought howls from the utility companies and from Oklahoma’s politicians. Utility companies claim that installing scrubbers or converting to natural gas will cost them billions of dollars and drive the rates for electricity up by 10 to 12%. The utility companies have defined the costs for the plant conversions or upgrades in the worst possible terms, without considering the long-term savings.  Conversion to natural gas would eliminate the problem of  coal combustion products such as acidic gases, mercury vapor, fly ash, and bottom ash. Although coal is cheaper than other fuels, it delivers less energy per unit of CO2 produced. Coal  produces 314 kJ/mole while natural gas produces 890 kJ/mole, almost 3 times that of coal. Considering Oklahoma’s abundant supplies of natural gas, it would make sense for Oklahoma to begin switching power plants to natural gas.

The power companies and the politicians have tried to define the problem as the cost of the  “elimination of haze”, as if there were no other environmental damage done by burning coal. That is because the elimination of haze under the Clean Air Act is all the EPA is presently empowered to do. Coal is 65 to 95 % carbon. What about the rest? Coal contains small amounts of mercury, chromium, lead, cadmium, arsenic, sulfur, particulates, and radioactive isotopes. Man burns 6 billion tons of coal each year, releasing millions of tons of pollutants into the air and leaving several hundred million tons behind in the coal ash. Some pollutants eventually find their way into the water, the food chain, and into us. Oklahoma has adopted limits on fish consumption because of high levels of mercury. For comparison, mercury is 100 times as toxic as cyanide, arsenic is 20 times as toxic, and chromium(VI) is 4 times as toxic. These three are also are carcinogenic and accumulate in tissue. Even exposure below the allowed levels increases the chance of cancer over time. The small town of Bokoshe, Oklahoma is located near an unregulated fly ash disposal site. The incidence of cancer among the residents of the town is extraordinarily high, though the power company claims there is no link between that and their fly ash.

The sulfur and nitrogen oxides released by coal combustion harm plants and produce acid rain. A recent article headlined “Pecan growers say coal-fired plant killing trees” described the plight of orchards downwind from a power plant with inadequate pollution controls. One farmer said his pecan crop dropped over the years from 200,000 to 8,000 pounds. The combustion of coal  also releases 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year. Because  CO2 in 3water is an acidic, the oceans have become over 20% more acidic in the last century. That has led to the destruction of coral reefs and endangered crustaceans and the phytoplankton that convert CO2 to oxygen. Without phytoplankton, life in the oceans would be impossible. The concentration of CO2 in the air has increased 38% as well.  As a potent greenhouse gas, it is causing the Earth to warm, glaciers and polar ice to melt, and the climate to change in ways we will not always like. The Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. EPA, ordered the EPA to make a determination as to whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant. The EPA has found, based on the best scientific evidence, that CO2 is an endangerment to public health and has moved forward to regulate it.

Oklahoma’s politicians, such as Sen. Jim Inhofe and  Congressman Dan Boren, are working on a solution- for the power companies benefit. They want to strip the  EPA of  its power to regulate pollution.  They also claim it is a states rights issue, and that the EPA has no business regulating Oklahoma industries. However, the pollution generated by Oklahoma’s power plants does not stay within its borders, nor is all the pollution in Oklahoma from Oklahoma sources. Much of it blows up from Texas, the state with the highest number of power plants out of compliance. Acidic gases released by coal combustion, and even mercury vapor, can travel for thousands of miles before being brought to Earth by precipitation, and much of the CO2 will stay in the air for centuries. Regulation of carbon emissions needs to be done on a national and even international level. It is a bad idea to focus on short term economic costs while ignoring the environmental costs, such as polluting the Earth and letting rural Oklahoma become a dumping ground for the power companies’ waste.

(C) 2011 J.C. Moore

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