The importance of coal as an energy source for America cannot be overstated. Yet the environmentalist Left commonly condemns coal as a major cause of air pollution and a leading contributor to global warming.
The United States possesses nearly 270 billion tons of recoverable coal -- by far the largest reserves on earth (28 percent of the world's total). U.S. coal deposits contain more energy do all the planet’s oil reserves combined, and could meet all of America’s fuel needs for well over a century.
Coal is a sedimentary rock composed chiefly of carbon. When combined with hydrogen, carbon forms volatile substances known as hydrocarbons. Of these, crude oil is the most useful, because when refined it yields flammable fluids such as diesel and gasoline which are used in combustion engines.
More than half of America’s electricity today is derived from coal. Though the nation's reliance on this resource has tripled since 1970, sulfur dioxide and particulate emissions have declined by 40 percent and 90 percent since that time, levels that pose no significant risks to human health. New technologies and regulations will reduce coal power-plant emissions even further by 2020.
The environmentalist Left, however, views coal as an undesirable source of energy. The Sierra Club says, "From the mine to the plant, to the ash pond, coal is our dirtiest energy source. It causes asthma and other health problems, destroys our mountains, and releases toxic mercury into our communities." Greenpeace activists have been known to organize direct actions blocking the construction of coal plants.
President Barack Obama, for his part, has indicated his deep-seated opposition to the coal industry. He has pledged to tax the industry heavily, thereby making it unprofitable for entrepreneurs to open any new coal plants. In January 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama said the following about the future of the coal industry:
“If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they will be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted…. [U]nder my plan of a cap and trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket. Even regardless of what I say about whether coal is good or bad. Because I’m capping greenhouse gases, coal power plants, you know, natural gas, you name it, whatever the plants were, whatever the industry was, uh, they would have to retrofit their operations. That will cost money. They will pass that money on to consumers.”
While the Obama administration seeks to phase out America's use of coal as an energy source, China and other rapidly developing countries plan to build large numbers of new coal plants (at least 1,000 before the year 2015) in the immediate future. European nations, meanwhile, are slated to build at least 50 more coal plants of their own during that same period. Thus, no matter how much the U.S. may cut back on its use of coal, those reductions will be more than offset by the vastly increased use of coal abroad -- in plants that adhere to few of the pollution controls that are required in the United States.