Environment

There are lots of factual ways to describe coal: carbon-rich, abundant, fossil fuel. But Republicans would like to add one more to the list: clean.

In the national GOP’s draft platform — leaked earlier this week — the party lays out its position on a number of issues, including the role it believes coal should play in America’s energy production. The share of U.S. electricity produced by coal is at the lowest point in more than half a century; in 2015, it accounted for 33 percent of U.S. electricity generation.

Coal’s recent problems have been numerous: It’s getting harder to reach reserves in Appalachia, it’s facing competition from cheaper natural gas, and utilities are choosing to retire older coal-fired plants rather than update them to comply with new environmental regulations.

But the Republican draft platform doubles down on coal.

Earlier this week in committee, Texas delegate David Barton slightly modified the party’s position on coal. To a list of adjectives describing the fuel, he added one word: clean. Now the draft platform includes this sentence: “The Democratic Party does not understand that coal is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.”

Putting aside the Democratic Party’s understanding of coal’s merits and disadvantages, the GOP platform raises the question: How clean is coal?

According to two industry representatives, the term may be relative. Coal is cleaner than it used to be. But both Bill Bissett of the Kentucky Coal Association and Laura Sheehan of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity shied away from calling it “clean.”

“I think we’re cleaner,” Bissett said before pivoting to argue that environmental footprint is only one of the factors that should be considered when considering energy sources.

“But I would almost look at that the opposite way: that every form of electricity production has some kind of environmental and economic cost to it, and what’s critical is that we have a fair discussion of those costs. And that usually doesn’t happen,” he said.

Sheehan pointed to the progress the coal industry has made in reducing emissions over the past four decades.

“Thanks to the significant investment of $126 billion in clean coal technologies by industry, today’s power plants emit 92 percent less emissions than they did in 1970 – making this power source cleaner than ever before,” she wrote in an email.

And this is true. Today, most coal-fired power plants have pollution controls that drastically reduce emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxides or sulfur dioxide. But the utility industry hasn’t added those emissions controls voluntarily.

“We do have technology to reduce some of the pollution that comes from coal, but our power industry has to be forced by the Clean Air Act to use that available, proven technology,” said Sarah Lynn Cunningham of the Louisville Climate Action Network.

Cunningham also takes issue with the GOP’s characterization of coal as “affordable,” saying the cost of the fuel doesn’t include numerous externalities — like health and environment costs that are passed to others.

Coal-burning also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. The GOP draft platform supports carbon capture and sequestration technology, which has been proven as a way to reduce CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants.

But so far, power plants experimenting with the technology haven’t found a way to make it economically feasible without a carbon tax. Republicans oppose a carbon tax and instead “urge the private sector to focus its resources on the development of the carbon capture and sequestration technology still in its early stages here and overseas.”

The GOP draft platform stops short of denying the earth’s climate is changing — though both presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump and reported vice president pick Mike Pence have made statements to that effect — but calls for a “dispassionate analysis of hard data” when projecting long-term climate data.

The draft Democratic platform avoids mentioning coal almost entirely, except to talk about the importance of investing in the country’s coal communities and creating economic opportunities for former coal workers. The platform also calls climate change a “real and urgent threat to our economy, our national security, and our children’s health and futures,” and calls for investments in clean energy.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's News Director.