I don’t believe it’s really possible for anyone to deny the serious environmental damage that coal burning has historically done and continues to do. Before global warming was taken seriously as an environmental threat, “acid rain” was an issue specifically linked to the coal industry: because of particulates, especially sulfur dioxide, released into the air from coal-fired power plants, the rain in the US northeast and parts of Canada was literally corrosive, eating away streets and buildings, not to mention trees. The EPA introduced an acid rain remediation program in 1980 which has been remarkably successful. (If you’re under 30 and have ever heard of “acid rain” you’re the exception–that’s how successful it’s been). Given this history, I doubt people who are even the most self-interested in the coal industry can seriously think that their industry is not a major polluter.
However, I don’t think the issue is black-and-white, nor do I think it’s fair to assume that coal execs or other purveyors of environmentally destructive practices are doing so out of either ignorance or sheer disregard of the consequences involved. Despite its poor environmental record, the fact is that coal is a huge slice of power generation in the US and other countries, and power is absolutely necessary for our economy and our society to operate from moment to moment. Shutting down the coal industry right now would black out something like 30% of our power grid. Thus, the fact is that coal remains a relevant player in our economy and in our environmental stewardship; we’re going to have to deal with the coal industry one way or another. Surely coal companies and related industries will lobby for rules and standards most advantageous to them; wouldn’t we all? But I also think they recognize the need to “green” the industry, at least to some extent, in order to maintain its economic viability going forward. So, while I think the coal industry can and should do more to help mitigate the effects of our reliance on fossil fuels, I think that they as well as all fossil fuel industry leaders are going to be a crucial component of how we deal with global warming and the changeover to renewable resources in the future.
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