Protect New Coal Restrictions
This is the second of an eight-part series on environmental policy in conjunction with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department.
In 2007, Minnesota passed the Next Generation Energy Act. Encouraging investment in renewable energy, this bipartisan legislation also established strict emissions standards on new coal-fired power plants in Minnesota and a moratorium on importing electricity from new coal power plants in other states.
This victory is now under threat. A bill is going through the legislature to repeal the state’s restrictions on new coal-fired power plants. Many people say that coal will lead the future, and that more energy at a cheaper price is necessary for our recovering economy. While economically competitive energy is important for growing businesses and families, limiting our safeguards on new coal plant emissions is not the solution. Coal harms our health, our waterways, and can jeopardize our environment and our energy future.
Minnesota currently has 46 coal-fired power plants that generate 60 percent of the state’s electricity. This energy, however, comes at a high cost. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, coal-fired power plants produce over 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and 3.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. They also produce 500 tons of airborne particles that carry with them many adverse health effects.
However, we’ve seen recently how limiting emissions and installing scrubbers on coal-fired plants have saved lives nationally.
According to a September 2010 report from the Clean Air Task Force, a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing atmospheric pollution, fine particle pollution from coal plants was expected to kill more than 13,000 Americans last year. The report also estimated that pollution caused by coal power plants would lead to over 9,000 hospital admissions and over 20,000 heart attacks and leads to 1.5 million lost workdays each year. This costs the American economy over $100 billion each year.
While still too high, these numbers represent significant improvements over the organization’s 2004 report, which cited 24,000 deaths from fine particle pollution.
Coal emissions harm more than just our health. The Minnesota Department of Health dissuades consumption of Minnesota-caught walleye larger than 20 inches or northern pike longer than 30 inches because of mercury levels. Over 50% of this mercury pollution is from coal-fired power plants. Even in low doses, mercury can delay a child’s development, shorten his or her attention span, and lead to possible learning disabilities. Among adults, mercury can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure, even from doses as low as those found in contaminated fish.
Industry groups often promote that new coal-fired power plants can be cleaner and safer than older ones. Even President Obama just promoted “clean coal” in his State of the Union address as a form of sustainable energy. “Clean coal” generally refers to carbon capture and sequestration technologies that reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gasses that arise from burning coal for electricity. Despite all of this talk of new technologies, there has yet to be a “clean coal” power plant built.
There was a point when the majority of policy makers understood the harm that our 46 coal-fired power plants are doing to our families, friends, neighbors, and environmental future. This was why former Governor Tim Pawlenty signed the Next Generation Energy Act into law, making Minnesota a national leader in developing local energy and reducing greenhouse gases.
This act is once again being challenged in the legislature. We cannot rely solely on coal for our energy. Instead, we must support renewable energy. We must continue to support the Next Generation Energy Act and maintain the fight to a healthier and cleaner future.
Shaina Kasper is a student at Macalester College