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Coal isn’t dying. It moved to Asia.

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Coal isn’t dying. It moved to Asia.

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Pizza ovens are firing up the coal industry

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As the interminably salty April Ludgate of Parks and Recreation once said, “Time is money, money is power, power is pizza, and pizza is knowledge.” Well, there’s something about pizza you knead to know: It’s helping the coal industry.

Before you freak out, you should know that not all types of pizza are equally guilty in harming the planet. We’re specifically talking about pizza cooked in coal-fired ovens (though wood-fired pizza is also pretty bad for the environment). Now you may be thinking, “Dude! It’s just pizza,” but slow down there, Ninja Turtle. It turns out the pizza-powered coal market is pretty significant.

Pennsylvania mining company Blaschak Coal Corporation had a blockbuster 2018, selling a record-breaking 382,000 tons of coal. That’s because it mines anthracite coal, the super hot-burning fuel used in many personal pizza ovens. Demand for the centuries-old style of cooking has been growing since 2015. And anthracite coal isn’t just used to cook pizza; it’s also used by steelmakers and for home heating.

Not ready to think about a pizza-less planet yet? One option is to cut down on coal-fired pizza and, y’know, just eat oven-baked pizza like a normal person. But there’s also good news about the coal industry in general: coal is on the decline. Last year was a terrible year for the toxic stuff — the U.S. retired around 15 gigawatts of coal capacity.

So if Americans can keep their insatiable desire for coal-fired pizza under control, we might be able to kick our coal habit after all. But I’m not holding my breath. Also, I’m hungry?


Pizza ovens are firing up the coal industry

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When coal goes low, Colorado goes Rocky Mountain High

Colorado’s high, clean mountain air has only been getting higher, thanks to wafting cannabis smoke, and will soon be getting cleaner, thanks to a plan approved on Monday by the state’s public utility commission.

Xcel, the state’s largest utility, will now retire two coal plants 10 years ahead of schedule, replacing them with wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries. The plan is supposed to slash the utility’s carbon emissions 60 percent below 2005 levels by 2026. That’s like taking 800,000 cars off the roads every year. All told, disease-causing pollutants, like NOx and SOx, should plunge 90 percent below current levels by 2026.

There are other utilities in Colorado, but because Xcel is so big, this deal will slash the amount of its electricity generated by coal from 44 percent to 26 percent.

“Colorado’s bold decision to invest in clean energy and a healthier future for the next generation shows what the public — and the marketplace — already know, that conservation and clean energy go hand in hand with a growing, healthy economy,” said Jon Goldin-Dubois, president of the environmental group Western Resource Advocates in a statement.

Environmentalists didn’t have to force this plan on Xcel, because Xcel proposed it. Colorado has powerful incentives for closing down old plants and building new ones, which has allowed big corporations to make a business case for switching to cleaner forms of energy.

Xcel will shutter 660 megawatts of coal generation from the two plants, replacing it with 1,100 megawatts of wind, 700 megawatts of solar, and 225 megawatts of energy storage. All this will cost $250 billion, but Xcel says that ratepayers will end up saving $200 million in the long run. (Independent observers have cast doubt on that figure.)

The two plants Xcel will lose are in the Comanche Power Station in the blue-collar city of Pueblo; a third plant in Comanche is slated to remain open. As part of the new plan, Xcel will build a 240-megawatt solar installation, which will help Pueblo in its bid to get all of its electricity from renewable sources (a quest we wrote about back in January).

“With approval of this plan, Pueblo is poised to become Colorado’s clean energy hub,” said David Cockrell, an activist working with Pueblo’s Energy Future and the Sierra Club.

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When coal goes low, Colorado goes Rocky Mountain High

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When Trump tries to bring back coal, these communities pay the price

Christina Zacny has a rare immunological condition, mast cell activation syndrome. “I’m literally allergic to almost everything,” she says. Her symptoms became more severe four years ago when she began going into anaphylactic shock, at one point going into shock thirty times within 3 months.

Zacny grew up down the street from a coal-fired power plant in Wheatfield, Indiana and still lives nearby. She says her doctor suspects that the polluted air and water that has surrounded Zacny for most of her life has exacerbated her disorder. She wears a mask when when the air quality is bad and worries about groundwater contamination from the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station’s coal ash.

So when the Trump administration unveiled its plan to deregulate coal emissions earlier this week, Zacny was stunned. She works evenings at the nearby Blue Chip Casino, and was woken up one morning by an urgent phone call from a friend. “They said you have to go look at the news rights now, you’re not going to believe what just happened,” she recalls. “I was just sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is awful.’”

This spring, groundwater near the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station plant was found to be contaminated with toxic substances.

The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its proposed replacement of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan earlier this week. It’s the Trump administration’s latest attempt to resurrect the ailing coal industry. According to a side-by-side comparison of policies by the EPA, the Obama-era rules “shut down coal” while Trump’s plan “keeps coal plants open.”

Critics of the proposed Clean Power Plan replacement, called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, are both skeptical and outraged. Coal-fired power plants are in steady decline, a trend that will likely continue as natural gas and renewables become cheaper energy options. But while the proposal won’t be enough to hearken a coal comeback, it does extend a lifeline to the remaining coal plants that don’t meet Obama-era emissions standards. And that’s life-threatening for the communities closest to coal plants, like Wheatfield.

Earlier this year, groundwater near the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station plant tested positive for toxic substances and two known carcinogens, radium and arsenic. To Zacny, that’s not a coincidence. She lost her father and grandfather to cancer, and several uncles and cousins have had cancer, too.

“I don’t want to lose anyone else,” Zacny says. “I have children that grew up in this area drinking the well water. I want to see my children and family live long lives.”

For now, two of the plant’s four coal-fired generators are slated to shut down in 2023 as part of the utility’s efforts to shift to cleaner energy. Although the utility has said that it plans to stay on track, it’s in the process of reviewing the policy changes announced this week.

Since 2010, some 270 coal plants have shut down, or are planning their retirements, according to the Sierra Club. That’s more than the number of coal plants still open. The organization estimates that shutting these plants down has saved more than 7,000 lives and $3.4 billion in healthcare costs.

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan called for a 32 percent drop of carbon emissions below 2005 levels from the electric sector by the year 2030. Despite legal challenges that have kept the Clean Power Plan from being enforced, we’re actually close to hitting that goal — emissions are down nearly 30 percent since 2005.

Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, says that the United States is within a year or two of meeting the targets of the Clean Power Plan. “We have continued to make steady progress in spite of all the chaos created by Trump.”

That’s the good news. The bad is that Trump’s plan, by the EPA’s own estimates, will lead to as many as 1,400 more premature deaths each year. That’s because the new plan rolls back federal oversight and allows states to lay out their own rules for regulating power plants.

“They’re handing off the responsibility for this important program to the states which have in the past already shown that they’re not capable of controlling air pollution, especially pollutants that travel in an interstate manner,” says George Thurston, population health director at NYU School of Medicine’s Human Exposures and Health Effects program. “You need a national coordinated effort.”

And if the 27 states that sued to keep the Clean Power Plan from being enforced choose to relax pollution rules, it will be easier for dirty plants that would have shut down to carry on. Thurston says the people who live closest to these power plants, like Zacny, will wind up paying the price with their health.

In 2012, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the NAACP, and Chicago-based environmental justice organization, LVEJO, published a report that looked at who lives near coal plants across the country. Of those who live within 3 miles of a coal plant, almost 40 percent are people of color and the average person made $18,400 a year. Kandi Mossett, a lead organizer from North Dakota for the Indigenous Environmental Network (and a member of the Grist 50 class of 2016), says that her community has suffered health problems ranging from asthma to cancer as a result of contamination from coal. Now she fears they’ll have to face another battle with the coal industry on top of their efforts to stop fracking for oil.

“In more recent years we’ve been dealing with emissions from fracking as well, and we were hoping to breathe a sigh of relief, if not fresh air, as coal plants were hopefully being phased out,” Mossett said. “Instead, we’re dealing with the nightmare of the fossil-fuel-controlled state potentially being able to regulate itself.”

Handing over power to the states, however, could encourage some to push for stronger emissions standards and carbon dioxide reduction goals. Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, expects to see states that have embraced clean energy to step up. California and Vermont are leaders when it comes to clean energy momentum, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That is extraordinarily important when we have a lack of national leadership,” she says.

Photo credit: Christina Zacny for State Representative

Zacny, a mother of four, is running for Indiana House of Representatives. Her platform focuses on making sure that others like her who live with chronic illnesses have access to healthcare. She would also like to see the Schahfer plant turned into a solar and wind farm, and she’s pushing to legalize industrial hemp that she says can be used to clean up contaminated sites.

“These are long lasting implications that the community is going to have from this [coal plant],” says Zacny. “Whether we transition over to renewable energy or not we still have cancer here.”

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When Trump tries to bring back coal, these communities pay the price

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It’s 2018, and black lung disease is on the rise in Appalachia.

“The relationship that I had with Putin spans 18 years now,” the secretary of state said during a 60 Minutes interview with CBS’ Margaret Frank. “It was always about what I could do to be successful on behalf of my shareholders, and how Russia could succeed.” A true deal-maker.

But as U.S. secretary of state, the ex-CEO of ExxonMobil is supposed to put the United States’ interests first. That should ostensibly put some pressure on the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tillerson, which was commemorated with a Russian friendship medal in 2013 after ExxonMobil signed deals with Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil company.

Russia is one of the world’s top exporters of both oil and gas. As Alex Steffen and Rebecca Leber have written, the country stands to benefit from procrastinating on climate change action that would limit fossil fuel extraction.

In the 60 Minutes interview, Tillerson recounted his first meeting with the Russian president after becoming U.S secretary of state. “Same man, different hat,” is how he recalls reintroducing himself.

“What he is representing is different than what I now represent,” Tillerson elaborated. “And I said to him, ‘I now represent the American people.’”

Convincing! And now, on to the SNL skit that apparently made Tillerson laugh out loud:

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It’s 2018, and black lung disease is on the rise in Appalachia.

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We could be in a little less trouble than we thought.

Here’s how humanity could all but ensure its own demise: Dig up all the coal we have left and burn it, warming the planet 4 to 6 degrees C.

But that worst-case scenario doesn’t match up with what’s really happening in the world, Justin Ritchie, lead author of a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, told Grist.

That’s because money spent on climate change measures goes further than it did 30 years ago. Plus, baseline trends show greenhouse gas emissions are on the decline. Most studies underestimate the effect these factors have on global decarbonization.

The study indicates that the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement are more achievable than previously projected — but that’s not to say humanity isn’t in deep trouble.

It’s not “4 to 6 degrees bad,” Ritchie says. “It’s 3 degrees bad. You can’t say we don’t have to worry about implementing policies, we do. But it’s not going to reach the truly catastrophic scenarios.”

Another recent study published in the same journal shows that if all the coal plants currently planned actually get built, humanity could blow past the Paris goal of limiting warming to 2 degree C above pre-industrial levels.

Ritchie said his research doesn’t counteract that finding. “There’s a whole range of scenarios that can occur,” he says. “What our paper is trying to do is look at that whole range and how can we design policies that are more robust.”

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We could be in a little less trouble than we thought.

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Fossil fuel developments on U.S. public lands emit more greenhouse gases than most countries.

New research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association could help pinpoint snow levels in mountain ranges across the Western United States eight months in advance. That’s more certainty of the future than we’re getting from most government agencies these days, so we’ll take it!

“Snowpack” refers to layers of mountain snow that build up during the winter, harden into large masses of frozen water, and then melt in the spring. That melted snow trickles down to feed rivers and streams, bolster municipal water supplies, and supply farmers with a majority of the water they need to grow crops. Eighty percent of snowmelt runoff is used for agriculture.

A lack of snowpack, furthermore, is a big cause of wildfires and drought. Declining snowpack levels in Western mountain ranges in recent years contributed to 2017’s unprecedented drought and wildfire season.

Now, scientists at NOAA think they can help farmers and water managers in the West by predicting where water resources are most likely to accumulate and how much snowmelt can be expected.

This summer, researchers will already be working on snowpack predictions for March 2019 across the western U.S. — with the exception of the southern Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, where random storms make predictions difficult.

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Fossil fuel developments on U.S. public lands emit more greenhouse gases than most countries.

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Coal’s death spiral, in 3 charts

The latest reports suggest that coal has the equivalent of black-lung disease: the condition is chronic, and the long-term prognosis is dire.

Power companies plan to shutter more than 10 big coal plants in 2018, extinguishing a major portion of coal burning in the United States (see the map below). According to projections released by the Energy Information Administration this week, coal-fired plants will produce less than 30 percent of the electricity Americans use this year. Back in 2000, coal provided more than half of our electricity. Cheap natural gas has knocked coal out of competition.

2018 will be a bad year to be a gray dot.


This year is expected be a big one for coal-plant retirements but, as you can see below, so was 2015, and 2012, and, well, much of the past decade.

Pretty much all the plants shutting down are fossil-fuel plants.EIA

“Coal in the U.S. might not be dead, but it is in a death spiral,” said Alex Gilbert, of the energy research firm SparkLibrary. “Coal’s demise is inevitable, but it can still emit significant greenhouse gas and other emissions on its way out. The main policy question now is whether the death spiral should be a decade long or decades long.”

What pushed coal power into the death spiral? In a word, fracking. A crackdown on toxic pollution and the rise of wind and solar power, too. If you look at this map of plants scheduled to open this year, it’s all renewables and gas.

Look at all those renewables… and gas plants.EIA

Gilbert said coal companies also played a supporting role in the dirty fuel’s demise. “Coal’s decline is mainly due to market competition with natural gas with regulations playing a secondary role,” he said. “Fundamentally, however, coal is dying because the industry decided to fight changing times. Instead of innovating into a 21st-century compatible energy source, they played politics.”

So, what does all this mean for greenhouse-gas emissions? Well, even if we stop burning coal, it wouldn’t be enough to solve our emissions problems. And as we squeeze carbon out of our electrical system, carbon emissions from cars, industry, and heating are all going up. That’s consistent with a long term trend.

“Between 2005 and 2016, almost 80 percent of the reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. came from the electric power sector,” wrote Trevor Houser and Peter Marsters of the Rhodium Group, a company which analyzes energy trends. To get greenhouse-gas emissions down, other sectors have to play a larger role.

Rhodium Group

This year, people are expected to drive more, and a growing economy will cause industry to ramp up. All told, the United States is likely to pump out more greenhouse gases this year, according to the new data from the EIA.

“After declining by 1.0 percent in 2017, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are forecast to increase by 1.7 percent in 2018,” the EIA wrote.

It looks like our biggest problem is no longer coal. It’s cars.

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Coal’s death spiral, in 3 charts

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Singing protesters interrupt a White House presentation at COP23.

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Singing protesters interrupt a White House presentation at COP23.

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The Clean Power Plan’s health benefits are better than ever, Trump’s EPA discovers.

Poor dumb turtles and fish, always chomping on the ubiquitous plastic in the water by accident — or so the story went, until a handful of recent studies suggested sea creatures may actually be choosing to eat plastic.

In one of these experiments, researchers took single grains of sand and particles of microplastic — both around the same size and shape — and dropped them onto coral polyps. The tiny creatures responded to the plastic the same way they would to a tasty piece of food, stuffing the bits of trash into their mouths like so many Snickers Minis.

“Plastics may be inherently tasty,” Austin Allen, a study coauthor and marine science doctoral student at Duke University, told the Washington Post.

Coral polyps rely on chemical sensors — taste buds, essentially — to determine whether something is edible or not. And they were repeatedly chosing to swallow plastic during the study. Only once in 10 trials did a polyp make the same mistake with sand. In fact, the cleaner and fresher and more plastic-y the plastic was, the more readily the coral gulped it down.

While the long-term effects of the plastic-saturation of the planet are still unknown, this research suggests that accidentally tasty microplastics could pose an extra hazard to already beleaguered corals around the world.

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The Clean Power Plan’s health benefits are better than ever, Trump’s EPA discovers.

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