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Writer Considers Clean Coal in Global Warming Fight

Robb Kendrick
National Geographic

National Geographic Magazine’s latest cover story asks whether coal energy can be clean energy. It’s an important question for anyone concerned about climate change impacts and for states like Utah that mine coal for power plants.

Writer Michelle Nijhuis traveled around the United States for her article on coal energy. She also traveled to China with a delegation that included Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead. Solving climate change, she says, requires an all-of-the-above strategy to cut greenhouse gas pollution.

“I don’t think investing in renewables is enough,” says Nijhuis. “I think we need to clean up the energy sources we’re using now. And no amount of investment in renewable energy is going to get us off coal tomorrow – certainly not on a global scale.”

Credit Robb Kendrick / National Geographic Magazine
National Geographic Magazine
Finely pulverized coal flames inside the 186-foot-high boiler of the Dry Fork Station power plant near Gillette, Wyoming. The fire heats the water-filled tubes at the core of the boiler, producing steam that drives the plant’s turbine.

  Nijhuis explains how pollution from coal-burning goes back more than a century. And she points out that China continues to build more coal plants, but it's also adopting technology to reduce the dirty emissions. That’s not happening in the United States, because Congress abandoned cap-and-trade legislation and energy companies don’t have an incentive to develop cleaner technologies.

“Industry is willing to take a risk when they think they have a chance of getting out ahead,” Nijhuis says. “You take those rules away and there’s no incentive. Certainly you can understand a company that’s looking at its bottom line is not going to volunteer to take that first risk.

Nijhuis points out that President Obama promised regulations to clean up power plants last spring. And states are tasked with implementing them. Utah State Sen. DavidHinkins represents coal-rich Carbon and Emery counties. He wants federal regulators to rethink rules that might put Utah coal-fired plants out of business because of greenhouse gases.

“I’m not going to get into a debate that part of it. What we’re talking about is clean-coal technology. And my opinion is that coal is going to be burnt somewhere in our bubble. We can either have expensive power, or we can reasonable priced power.”

Utah is 15th among the 25 states that extract coal. But mining it is on a downward trend. Coal is also the Utah state rock.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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