To Coal or Not to Coal: That is the Question Probably Best Left Unanswered for Now

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It’s no secret that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the coal industry are at a constant battle with one another; one side fighting for change, the other fighting to remain the same.

In recent years, the EPA has taken strong measures to restyle America’s energy production. The imperfectly-shaped black mineral that was once regarded as a highly fashionable source of energy, has lost its spark-appeal next to trending renewables that are cleaner and greener.

A seemingly innocent black sedimentary rock composed of carbon and other elements, coal continues to make it on the EPA’s Most Wanted Pollutant list year after year. According to the EPA, coal power plants emit about one-third of the United States’ greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere, and release even greater amounts of carbon dioxide –thus capping coal as the largest single-source contributor of greenhouse gases within the US.

I recently attended the Eastern Fuel Buyers Conference held at the Disney Yacht Club Resort in Orlando, Florida on behalf of ZE.  Knowing very little about the coal industry, I looked forward to learn as much as I could. Pen and a Disney-stamped notepad in hand, I began to jot down bullet points as I listened to presenters discuss the many challenges facing the coal industry. By the time the second and third presenters left the stage, I looked around the room and found myself amidst a group of respectable men and women who saw the world much—much  differently than I.

As a supporter of clean and sustainable energy, it quickly became a challenge to sit quietly and listen to some of the views and comments that were expressed at the conference.  Nonetheless, I decided to try something new–I put down my defensive guard and gave coal a chance.

So I sat, and I listened.
I listened as presenters voiced their many concerns over the inescapable fall of what once used to be a prominent industry that helped revolutionize a wood-burning world into industrialization.  I listened as coal supporters struggled to find conventional ways to stop the industry from getting shafted, and remain players within the energy market.  I listened as members presented their case for America’s ongoing dependency on coal, and I listened as they explained coal in ways to get me to see coal their way.  I listened a lot in those few days, enough that I can confidently say my listening skills have improved considerably, I think.

Although my stance on renewable and sustainable clean energy might never change, there was one coal story that helped me see things differently. The story was about this mean polar vortex that struck the East Coast thrice this past winter. A story I know all too well, being that I died of hypothermia all three times!

It’s not so much that the coal industry’s call to rescue helped save the lives of 800,000 or so Americans abandoned by natural gas and left to freeze to death.  Nor is it that natural gas providers actually ran out of gas because they couldn’t keep up with the surge in demand!  OK maybe it is. But there is also something overwhelming about seeing a group of men and women who were once the biggest movers and shakers of the energy world, reminisce over powering up coal plants because they were needed again.

After being kicked to the curb by natural gas for years, the coal industry seemed content to finally catch a break. It was as though the momentum gained thanks to the polar vortex, resuscitated the morale of the entire coal industry—at least for the time being.  The indisputable truth that extreme weather isn’t enough for a definite comeback, however, loomed over the conference hall like a dust of tainted black smoke.

To understand the misfortune of coal, it’s probably a good idea to understand the reasons why it’s not on EPA’s favorites list.  From inception onward, the process that takes coal through its journey to be turned into an energy source has had major repercussions on our health, safety, and environment.

Coal’s ecosystem fail begins during the extraction process when methane, a highly explosive gas trapped within coal seams, is ventilated to keep concentration levels low enough to reduce the risk of mine explosions. Although the ventilation process which uses Ventilation Air Methane Thermal Oxidizers (VAMTOX) to destroy methane inside mine shafts, failure to release the proper amount of methane during the ventilation process has resulted in many methane explosions, killing miners around the world yearly .  The ventilation process also attempts to capture methane, to prevent this gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, from reaching our atmosphere, but being that nothing is perfect, a substantial amount of methane still gets released into the atmosphere from coal seams. According to the EPA, coal mines comprise about 15% of all methane emitted within the US.

After coal is mined comes the issue of depleting lakes and rivers of large amounts of water required to clean coal of its impurities, produce steam, and cool down the systems. If that’s not enough of a reason to fail in an environmental debate, all the ash from the burned coal needs to be deposited somewhere.

For those reasons listed above, and others that can be found on EPA’s website, the EPA alongside other agencies such as the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), have taken strong measures to mitigate GHG emissions arising from coal plants, and reduce the use of fossils as energy.

Justifiably, the goal of environmental agencies is to help preserve the ecosystem from destruction, but to do so is at the cost of an entire global industry. The strict rules and regulations are threatening the coal industry into extinction, and we have to be honest and ask ourselves if that’s something we are ready for. If there is one thing I got out of attending the Eastern Fuel Buyers Conference, it’s that, as much as I want to help clean and preserve this world from depleting all of its non-renewable resources, I recognize that there is still an ongoing need for fuel diversity. Unless we as a nation are fully weaned off of coal–which is not the case as became evident this past winter– imposing costly rules and regulations rather than helping the industry find attainable and sustainable solutions that will allow them to remain in the power mix will force coal plants into remission.  The reality for coal-fired power plants is that they can’t afford to remain idle forever, and we can’t afford to have them shut down, because once they shut down for good, who are we going to call to our rescue?

Energy market participants can easily chart the impact that extreme weather events and environmental regulations have upon coal spot and derivatives prices in ZEMA, ZE’s data management solution. ZEMA automatically collects, validates, and analyzes data; users can then display analyses or raw data alongside news updates in ZEMA’s customizable screens to gain a wider perspective of the market. To learn how ZEMA can make coal market analysis simpler and faster, book a complimentary demonstration at

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