For most of us, the word “coal” conjures up images of puffing smokestacks in a nineteenth-century industrial city or the dark, dank atmosphere of a coal mine. Few of us think of coal when we power up our laptop, turn on the television, or load our iPod. But we should. Few of us fully realize the role that coal plays in America and around the world. In his 2006 book, Journalist Jeff Goodell travels around the United States to examine the faulty assumptions underlying coal’s dominance and to shatter the myth that cheap coal is the energy source for the twenty-first century. Also, in his new book How to Cool the Planet (April 2010), Goodell explores the scientific, political, financial, and moral aspects of geoengineering.
The U.S. electric grid is not actually a unified system, but rather a complex network of local and regional power authorities. As the demand for electricity in the U.S. has increased in recent decades, the aging infrastructure built to carry the power has been stretched to the breaking point. This map from National Public Radio shows where the major high-capacity electric transmission lines (green) are located today. Using the links on the left side of the map, you can see where the lines of different capacities run. The orange lines represent one proposal for bringing wind energy to a nationwide grid—a system that would connect the regional wind power utilities with high-capacity electric transmission lines in addition to the existing electric system.
In the United States, electricity is generated in many different ways, with a wide variation in environmental impact. Electricity generation from the combustion of fossil fuels contributes toward unhealthy air quality, acid rain, and global climate change. Many electricity customers can choose their provider of electricity or can purchase green power from their utility. In fact, you might now have the option of choosing cleaner, more environmentally friendly sources of energy. The Power Profiler created by the Environmental Protection Agency will 1) determine your power grid region based on your ZIP code and electric utility; 2) compare the fuel mix and air emissions rates of the electricity in your region to the national average; 3) determine the air emissions impacts of electricity use in your home or business.
As coal-burning power plants have reduced their air emissions, many have created another problem: water pollution. While some regulators have used laws like the Clean Water Act to combat pollution, many plants have repeatedly violated that law without incurring fines. The New York Times has compiled data from the Environmental Protection Agency on coal-fired plants with permits to discharge pollutants, including factories that generate their own power.
THIS LINK WILL TAKE YOU TO AN ADVOCACY ORGANIZATION. “Follow the Coal Money” is an interactive tool from Appalachian Voices that tracks the flow and influence of coal money in US politics, throughout all political parties. Click on one of the search tools on the right to find out which companies are heaping their dirty coal money into politics, and which lawmakers are receiving it. As Congress debates how to address two of coal’s biggest problems—mountaintop removal and global warming—you can find out how polluters are influencing lawmakers. Two other data aggregation projects that track coal industry campaign contributions are LittleSis.org and Maplight.org.
The Center for Public Integrity tracked climate change lobbying in Congress in 2008 and created a multimedia project with articles, searchable lobbyist database, and other interactive features. CPI’s analysis of Senate lobbying disclosure forms “shows that more than 770 companies and interest groups hired an estimated 2,340 lobbyists to influence federal policy on climate change in , as the issue gathered momentum and came to a vote on Capitol Hill.”
This article is part of the Coal Issues portal on SourceWatch, a project of CoalSwarm and the Center for Media and Democracy. To see a nationwide list of over 600 coal plants in the United States, click here. For a list of proposed coal plants and coal plants that are under construction, click here.
THIS LINK WILL TAKE YOU TO AN ADVOCACY ORGANIZATION. An interactive maps shows broad trends across the country in power plant pollution-related deaths. The map allows users to zoom in on data for individual states, including a state pollution profile/summary, individual emission statistics by type, health statistics, and the projected number of deaths occurring by 2020 under different policy scenarios. Founded in 1996, the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring clean air and healthy environments through scientific research, public education, and legal advocacy. Our unique and singular focus on atmospheric issues has allowed us to go deep on the issues, and be persistent and effective.
THIS LINK WILL TAKE YOU TO AN ADVOCACY ORGANIZATION. “What’s My Connection to Mountaintop Removal?” is an interactive map created by iLoveMountains.org, an online resource and action center produced by a collaboration of local, state, and regional organizations across Appalachia that are working together to end mountaintop removal and create a prosperous future for the region. In addition, a number of regional and national partner organizations have provided crucial support in the release and promotion of “What’s My Connection to Mountaintop Removal?” If your home or business is on the electric grid, chances are you are connected to mountaintop removal in the Appalachian Mountains. Find out how—and then find out what you can do about it. Enter your zip code.
THIS LINK WILL TAKE YOU TO AN ADVOCACY ORGANIZATION. AmericasPower.org is an advocacy website sponsored by energy companies to promote clean coal technology. Members of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) include Peabody Energy Corporation, GE Energy, and Western Fuels Association. The ACCCE was formed when Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) and the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED) merged in 2008. Since 2001, ABEC has been funding an advertising campaign about the benefits of clean coal technology. In April 2009, ABEC changed its name again to America’s Power Army. In 2008, the environmental group NRDC created a parody website of Americaspower.org: COAL POWER: Warming America, Warming the Planet
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