This is the worst year in decades for U.S. coal. During the first six months of 2016, U.S. coal production was down a staggering 28 percent compared to 2015, and down 33 percent compared to 2014. For the first time ever, natural gas overtook coal as the top source of U.S. electricity generation last year and remains that way. Over the past five years, Appalachian coal production has been cut in half and many coal-burning power plants have been retired.
This dramatic change has meant tens of thousands of lost coal jobs, raising many difficult social and policy questions for coal communities. But it’s an unequivocal benefit for the local and global environment. The question now is whether the trend will continue in the U.S. and, more importantly, in fast-growing economies around the world.
This is a remarkable decline. From its peak in 2008, U.S. coal production has declined by 500 million tons per year – that’s 3,000 fewer pounds of coal per year for each man, woman and child in the United States. A typical 60-foot train car holds 100 tons of coal, so the decline is the equivalent of five million fewer train cars each year, enough to go twice around the earth.
Health benefits from coal’s decline
Coal is 50 percent carbon, so burning less coal means lower carbon dioxide emissions. More than 90 percent of U.S. coal is used in electricity generation, so as cheap natural gas and environmental regulations have pushed out coal, this has decreased the carbon intensity of U.S. electricity generation and is the main reason why U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are down 12 percent compared to 2005.
Perhaps even more important, burning less coal means less air pollution. Since 2010, U.S. sulfur dioxide emissions have decreased 57 percent, and nitrogen oxide emissions have decreased 19 percent. These steep declines reflect less coal being burned, as well as upgraded pollution control equipment at about one-quarter of existing coal plants in response to new rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
These reductions are important because air pollution is a major health risk. Stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, respiratory disease and asthma are all associated with air pollution. Burning coal is about 18 times worse than burning natural gas in terms of local air pollution so substituting natural gas for coal lowers health risks substantially.
Economists have calculated that the environmental damages from coal are US$28 per megawatt-hour for air pollution and $36 per megawatt-hour for carbon dioxide. U.S. coal generation is down from its peak by at least 700 million megawatt-hours annually, so this is $45 billion annually in environmental benefits. The decline of coal is good for human health and good for the environment.