The Fuel of the Future Is… Coal?

Because we've no other options? Or because the coal industry says so?

This page was published 13 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

Two interesting articles last week discussed the inevitability of coal as the fuel of the future from quite different perspectives. 

The Atlantic’s James Fallows concludes that there is simply no cheap way to power the economies of China and the U.S. aside from coal.  But he’s hopeful that China, at least, seems committed to finding a way to de-carbonize coal.  

For now, coal is dirty in too many ways—from coal ash residue from combustion, to polluted Appalachian streams, to methane spewed from mines, to mercury poisoning our lakes, fish and drinking water, to billions of tons of CO2 turning the earth into a greenhouse.

While Fallows derides environmentalists for thinking so, the facts prove that for now "clean coal" is truly an oxymoron. Fallows is hopeful, however, that it will not always be so, mainly because there isn’t much of an alternative.

But given the utter lack of progress in the U.S. toward clean coal—except as a coal industry greenwashing campaign—pardon me for being skeptical that just because we need coal to be cleaner that it will become cleaner. 

[For a great spoof of coal industry websites, enjoy, brought to you by Greenpeace and others.]

Jeff Goodell has a different reason to think coal will always be with us:  the industry’s deep pockets and political clout. He argues in an article in Yale Environment 360 that "the war on coal has been a spectacular failure" because of the industry’s ability to buy political support and its relentless campaign to create false doubts about climate science. Goodell believes coal is doomed in the medium term—the next three or four decades—but that in the short term, the industry will use all its muscle to strangle progress towards a clean energy economy.

Even if Goodell is wrong and Fallows is right that the coal industry (at least in China) is committed to making coal "clean," and that coal can (somehow, eventually) be decarbonized, will it come too late to make a dent in climate change? And even if Fallows is right, which he may not be, we should still be doing everything we can—and fast—to move away from coal to renewables. Which may require a more successful war on coal.

Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.