In much of the net-zero discourse taking place, there are a few terms that environmental activists use that target coal use. For example, they usually talk in terms of “stationary sources” of pollution emitted from the use of fossil fuels. Use of that term narrows the discussion from all sources to power plants, and excludes the transportation sector and it’s use of gasoline and diesel fuel.

Unabated coal use is another term that appears more frequently. In the case of coal-fired power generation, that terminology is understood to mean plants that do not use carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). So far, the industry has seen only limited success with the use of CCUS. So, some activists have taken this a step further saying that no matter the efficiency of the underlying process, the use of coal-fired power will result in unacceptable levels of pollution. Therefore, the world should stop burning coal.

For most of the world, discontinuing the use of coal would be incredibly costly and for some countries it would simply be preposterous. When people are faced with the preposterous, most ignore it and move on.

The International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should broaden the discussion to include the use of abated coal, based on coal quality and coals that have been washed. This edition of Coal Age identifies many of the coal preparation and handling facilities that are removing the impurities from coal before it’s ever loaded into a railcar.

Environmental activists, who scoff at the term clean coal, have successfully blocked ports on the U.S. west coast from exporting cleaner burning coals to China. While their effort thwarted the use of some coal, they failed to make a dent in the amount of pollution that China currently generates from coal use. That coal may have displaced unabated coal, which would have reduced pollution. Instead of buying coal from the U.S., China continues to import it from Australia, Indonesia, North Korea, and Russia. The situation is similar in India.

For the sake of the environment, activists are now trying to block new mines and expansions at the permitting stage. This is happening with the
Signal Peak Energy expansion in Montana, the Woodhouse Colliery in the U.K., the Garzweiler mine in Germany, and Whitehaven Coal’s Narrabri mine in Australia (Worldwide News, p. 8). They are not so concerned about the long-term effects of mining on the regional environment as much as stopping the use of coal in the name of climate change.

If these groups win these lawsuits, they will only succeed in driving up the cost of electricity and they will not make a dent in improving the climate. They will hamstring developing economies and allow major polluters to continue unabated. As difficult as it might be, the definition of unabated should be revised and it should recognize the importance of the underlying process to reduce pollution and coal operators should be given credit for trying to displace unabated coal with beneficiated coal.