Jessica Lilly Published

'Can Coal Ever Be Clean?' NatGeo Explores Role in Climate Change


A feature article in April’s edition of National Geographic Magazine examines what America and other key countries are doing to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

The article comes as new regulations from the Obama Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are up for public comment. 

The article assumes that humans are inducing global climate change, an idea that some Republicans as well as the West Virginia Coal Association, still question. 

Wacky Weather

The calendar says it’s Spring but for West Virginia and other states across the country it’s been the seemingly never ending winter.

But doesn’t climate change theory say that the earth is warming?

The West Virginia Coal Association has picked up on what they called the “inconvenient truth” for Mr. Al Gore in a tweet that showed a picture of snow in the usually sunny Florida. 

January 27, 2014

The tweet refers, of course, to the documentary the former vice president hosted called, “The Inconvenient Truth” that predicts catastrophic events that could happen on earth if the climate continues to change as most scientists predict.  

Another tweet from the West Virginia Coal Association on January 25, 2014.

Scientists and climatologists have pointed to ‘extreme weather patterns’ as evidence that the climate is changing because of increases in carbon dioxide into the atmosphere–a change largely contributed to by ever-increasing energy demands by growing human populations.

The West Virginia Coal Association did not immediately return our request for comment on this story.

Update March 28, 2014 10:25 p.m.

Three days later, the West Virginia Coal Association has not returned our request for comment.

To understand an element of the current political climate of climate change, perhaps we should look back at a federal subcommittee hearing hosted in December 2013.

In a release Republican Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas said, "“Administration officials and the national media regularly use the impacts from hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and floods to justify the need for costly climate change regulations. The fact is there is little evidence that climate change causes extreme weather events.  Instead of trying to scare the American people and promote a political agenda, the administration should try to protect the lives and property of our nation’s residents from extreme weather by better weather forecasting.  Politicians and others should rely on good science, not science fiction, when they discuss extreme weather.  Otherwise, they will lack credibility when advocating new policy changes.”

Dr. David Tilly of Pennsylvania State university also testified that while science doesn’t know everything, climate change is real.

But let’s get back to the article in National Geographic Magazine. It doesn’t question where the world currently gets electricity.


Credit Robb Kendrick / National Geographic
National Geographic
Norfolk, Virginia At the Lamberts Point Coal Terminal, railcars loaded with coal line up to fill waiting ships. Some 20 million tons of coal—about 2 percent of U.S. production—move through this terminal each year, most of it from Appalachia.

Freelance reporter Michelle Nijhuis points out that coal provides 40 percent of the world’s electricity in the article called, “Can Coal Ever Be Clean?”.

“Coal provides a lot of jobs,” Nijhuis said. “Coal provides a lot of power not only in the U.S. but to people throughout the world who are getting power for the first time and many times it’s the cheapest, cheapest in dollar terms.”

Nijhuis also points out that while “cheap natural gas has lately reduced the demand for coal in the U.S., … everywhere else, especially in China, demand is surging,” not only for 80% of china’s electric power, but for things like plastic and rayon production too.

So basically, coal’s not forecasted to go away.

Madison, West Virginia They call it mountaintop removal. For each ton of coal taken from the Hobet 21 mine, 20 cubic yards of mountain are blasted away, then dumped in valleys. Hundreds of square miles of Appalachian ridges have been dismantled this way.
Credit Robb Kendrick / National Geographic

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So can coal ever be clean?

Nijhuis begins the article by pointing to West Virginia and the creeks polluted with acid mine drainage and remnants of mountain top removal or strip mining as evidence to say  … no, it can’t.

Nijhuis also says that coal “produces 39 percent of global CO2 emissions.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science just last week released a statement that points to the research of 97 percent of climate scientists, who say human caused climate change is real.

The report says the evidence is increased global temperature over the last 100 years, rising sea level, and the more frequent happenings of some types of extreme weather events – such as heat waves and heavy precipitation events. They say, that “recent scientific findings indicate that climate change is likely responsible for the increase in the intensity of many of these events in recent years.”

Nijhuis has covered the environment and science for about 15 years and says that majority speaks volumes.

“Science never agrees 100% …. on anything,” she said. “Ninety-seven percent very rarely agree on anything.”

So what now? 


Credit Robb Kendrick / National Geographic
National Geographic
Poca, West Virginia The Poca High School “Dots” practice near an American Electric Power coal-fired plant that powers nearly two million homes. Scrubbers clean some of the sulfur and mercury—but not the carbon—from the smoke.

According to the article, we need coal for electricity, and scientists say we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The Obama Administration and the EPA is expected to draft new rules meant to limit carbon pollution from power plants under the Clean Air Act by June of this year. The West Virginia Coal Association has launched a campaign encouraging coal mining families to send a message during the comment period to the EPA to say “they are destroying the lives of West Virginians who just want to work.”

The idea is to pay for the amount of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere. For power companies that would likely mean raising rates for customers. A tough point to sell when you’re not buying the climate change argument.

What about carbon capture?  Nijhuis points out that the Mountaineer power plant in West Virginia has successfully captured carbon, but with enormous contraptions collecting small percentages – still, Nijhuis says, it’s something.

“Putting some regulations in place will help jump start innovation,” she said, “and help the coal industry and science figure out how to further reduce carbon pollution from coal plants and make those technologies more reliable more efficient, more reliable hopefully cheaper.”

There’s also a market for some CO2 which can be used in oil fields to pull out pockets of oil as well as in the carbonated beverage industry. On that note, the “Friends of Coal” has also tweeted an article that points to a company that has a more efficient process to use carbon dioxide for making valuable chemical feed stocks.

Why should America bear the brunt of reducing CO2 emissions? China emits the largest amount of total carbon emissions, but the US still produces the highest volumes per capita, the article points out. Well,


Credit Robb Kendrick / National Geographic
National Geographic
Shuozhou, China The sun is sometimes obscured by soot from the Shentou Number 2 power plant in Shanxi Province, China. A lightning-bolt sculpture stands in the center of the neighborhood that houses the plant’s workers.


Nijhuis says China is working on reducing ‘air pollution’ and has some of the most efficient power plants in the world.

Of course there are renewable energy options.

Nijhuis says the takeaway from this article is about thinking about the “and” and not the “or”.

“We need all of these technologies,” she said. “I think it benefits us all to think broadly now.”

The deadline for comments on the new regulations is May 5.