No coal in your stocking

coal from Santa

Divest from this fossil fuel, at least.

Burning any fossil fuels is bad for the planet. We must stop extracting long-buried carbon from underground and spewing it into the atmosphere, creating a suicidal heat shield.

But of all the types of fossil fuels, coal is the worst. It’s dirty, unhealthful, and carbon-intensive. It’s also, unfortunately, readily available and transportable, and it’s easy to burn without special equipment. Maybe that’s why Santa Claus puts a lump of coal in every naughty kid’s stocking. Toys good, coal bad. Very bad.

The effects of coal

Let me count the ways it’s bad—starting with carbon intensity. Coal produces much more carbon dioxide for a given amount of energy than other fossil fuels. According to the US Energy Information Administration, anthracite coal emits 228 pounds of CO2 per one million BTUs of energy, while heating oil emits 161 pounds and natural gas 117. In other words, if you’re heating your house with coal, that’s 40 percent worse for the atmosphere than using oil and 95 percent worse than gas.

But the effects don’t stop there. Coal is bad for your health. It’s a leading cause of smog, acid rain, and toxic air pollution. It emits large quantities of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, mercury, lead, and hydrocarbons that create ozone. Coal is responsible for over 13,000 premature deaths in the US every year, along with 20,000 heart attacks, 200,000 asthma attacks, and $100 billion in additional health costs.

There’s no doubt we need to stop burning coal now. And to the extent that we can’t stop burning all fossil fuels immediately, coal is the first one we should get rid of.

A bad investment

It’s also the first fossil fuel we should divest from. Coal companies own enormous reserves—the top ten have twice as much in the ground as the top ten oil and gas companies—and it’s essential that they be dissuaded from mining and burning those reserves. That would be a fast track to climate chaos.

And coal is also a bad investment. Back in 2011, the head of asset management at Deutsche Bank said:

Coal is a dead man walking. Banks won’t finance [coal companies]. Insurance companies won’t insure them. The EPA is coming after them.… And the economics to make it clean don’t work.

Last year, Michael Bloomberg, then mayor of New York City, agreed: “Even though the coal industry doesn’t totally know it yet or is ready to admit it, its day is done.”

Stanford University was among the first institutions to announce divestment from coal, for both environmental and financial reasons. San Francisco State recently did the same, also divesting from tar sands oil. In September, however, the University of California Regents voted not to divest from fossil fuels at this time, but Governor Jerry Brown has hinted that UC might consider divesting from coal.

Legislative divestment

And yesterday there was even bigger news: coal divestment is moving to a new level, with a bill before the state legislature. At the California Climate Leadership Forum in Oakland, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León announced that he will introduce legislation to require CalSTRS and CalPERS to divest from all coal-related investments. De León, who has just returned from the international climate talks in Lima, said:

Climate change is the top priority of the California state Senate. Coal is a dirty fossil fuel…. And I think our values should shift in California…. We’re working out all the [divestment] details. We’re talking about a way that’s smart and intelligent, not a way that hurts investment strategies.

This is excellent news, an important first step toward divesting from oil and gas as well. CalPERS and CalSTRS should, on their own, divest from all fossil fuels. But there is now the strong possibility of legislative direction to divest from any companies that are in the business of coal mining or coal power.

And any state legislators who fail to support De León’s bill should know they may find a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings. That’s just Santa’s subtle way of encouraging divestment.

Photo: Creative Commons, some rights reserved, Flickr/Sean Biehle