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Georgia’s Reliance on Coal Questioned Amid Climate Concerns

May 19, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Climate Central's Heidi Cullen reports on the coal industry's role in Georgia, a state that gets over 60 percent of its electricity from coal, as new emissions and climate policies are crafted in Washington.

JIM LEHRER: Next, a second story about carbon emissions. Congress began drafting a bill this week to reduce carbon dioxide levels. Burning coal will be a major part of that debate.

Tonight’s story is about coal and climate change in the state of Georgia. The reporter is Heidi Cullen, a climatologist and correspondent for Climate Central, a nonpartisan research group of journalists and scientists.

HEIDI CULLEN, Climate Central: Plant Scherer in the small town of Juliette, Georgia, is the largest coal-fired power plant in the country. An average of three freight trains, each over a mile long, pulled in here every day. They’re filled with coal, most of it mined in Wyoming.

Scherer is a major supplier of electricity in Georgia, a state that gets over 60 percent of its electricity from coal.

Plant Scherer is the largest employer in Monroe County, and it burns roughly 40,000 tons of coal every day. The recent coal ash spill in Harriman, Tennessee, about 300 miles north of here, left a toxic sludge in the Emory River and increased concern about the broader environmental impacts of burning coal.

That ash spill and what it might mean for the future of coal worries Steve Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

STEVE SMITH, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy: We’ve seen huge devastation come from great ash spills that we saw late last year. Coal is a dirty business. Mountain top removal, combustion practices, and then dealing with the post-combustion waste, cradle to grave, it’s a problem.

HEIDI CULLEN: Chris Hobson says there won’t be an ash spillage here. He’s a vice president at the Southern Company, the majority owner of the plant.

CHRIS HOBSON, Southern Company: We have been very aggressive in making sure that our facilities are as safe as they can be. And we inspect them routinely. And we feel very confident that that kind of event won’t happen here in the Southern system.

HEIDI CULLEN: Today’s debate about coal extends well beyond Juliette and coal ash. People across Georgia are concerned about how the state’s dependence on coal could affect their lives.

GORDON ROGERS, Waynesville, Georgia: This is a cedar. And it’s losing its life due to an increase in salinity.

Sorry to mess with your fishing.

Rising sea levels harm environment

HEIDI CULLEN: A river keeper on the little Satilla River, about 75 miles south of Savannah, Gordon Rogers has seen the ocean's saltwater creep farther inland and mix with freshwater, in part, he says, due to sea level rise.

Sea level rise is a signature of global warming, which scientists say is a consequence of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Most of that increase has come from burning fossil fuels, and 40 percent of this carbon dioxide comes from coal.

What makes saltwater intrusion so bad?

GORDON ROGERS: Some of the fundamental pillars of our marine economy are built on this proper mix of fresh and salt. And a good example of perhaps a poster child is the blue crab. Blue crab production is down on the average about 60 percent since about 1970.

HEIDI CULLEN: And scientists believe carbon dioxide is contributing to an increase in such changes. It all has to do with climate change, which takes time to see.

Scientists say that if the world continues emitting carbon dioxide at its current rate, the average global temperature could rise by 7 degrees Fahrenheit, or possibly more, by the year 2100 and 9 nine degrees or more in the U.S.

For Georgia, this could mean the state tree, the live oak, would no longer thrive. And recent research predicts a two- to five-foot sea level rise by the end of the century due to the thermal expansion of water and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets. That could problematic to coastal cities like Savannah.

Laura Devendorf lives on the coast, some 40 miles south of Savannah. She's starting to see change, too.

LAURA DEVENDORF, Sunbury, Georgia: We're worried about sea level rise, indeed. I think everyone on the coast is. You can just sit there and see the tides getting bigger.

HEIDI CULLEN: Along with her daughter, Meredith, Devendorf lives on a 6,000-acre plantation near Sunbury. She says the threats to the marshlands are even more alarming than the rapidly changing tide.

LAURA DEVENDORF: I think it's between 60 percent and 80 percent of all seafood that you eat spends part of its lifecycle on the marsh. And the thought that this might disappear really is a devastating thing for the food source, for everything here.

Abandoning coal

HEIDI CULLEN: Steven Smith is quick to connect the types of changes both Rogers and Devendorf are noticing to Georgia's continued reliance on coal.

STEVE SMITH: Georgia is being impacted on a number of different fronts. And we're frustrated that the political environment doesn't match up with what we think is at jeopardy. So we're stuck with the status quo, and the status quo in the South is largely coal.

HEIDI CULLEN: Chris Hobson says abandoning coal just isn't practical for utilities producing electricity.

CHRIS HOBSON: Coal is a critically important fuel source to the country, but particularly here to the southeast. There's a great deal of existing generation infrastructure already on the ground that's using coal. We cannot abandon that infrastructure.

HEIDI CULLEN: Hobson adds that his company is working to minimize coal's environmental risks.

CHRIS HOBSON: We are spending roughly $3 billion here at Plant Scherer upgrading pollution-control equipment to control what we call the traditional pollutants from EPA, sulfur dioxide emissions, nitrogen oxide, and mercury.

HEIDI CULLEN: But soon, coal-using companies around the country may face new regulations. The EPA recently ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, and Congress is debating legislation that would require reducing CO-2.

That's one reason why the owners of coal-fired plants are exploring new ways to reduce emissions, including something they call "clean coal," a phrase that has sparked an ongoing multimillion-dollar advertising war. Attack ads...

ACTOR: "Clean coal" harnesses the awesome power of the word "clean."

HEIDI CULLEN: ... and ads supporting clean coal.

ACTRESS: I believe.

AD NARRATOR: We can be energy independent. We can continue to use our most abundant fuel cleanly and responsibly.

Opponents of clean coal

HEIDI CULLEN: Opponents of clean coal say that coal is a dirty rock that can't be wiped clean with an advertising campaign, that mining, ash disposal, and combustion are intrinsically problematic.

The other side points to the low cost of coal and domestic reserves that could last 200 years or more. That, they say, will help the U.S. remain competitive with fast-growing economies like China and India, both major coal users.

So what is clean coal? And even if we can make the coal cleaner, the two bigger questions are, how long will it take to build the technology? And how much will it cost?

CHRIS JONES, Georgia Institute for Technology: Clean coal today increasingly means carbon capture and sequestration.

HEIDI CULLEN: A professor of engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, Chris Jones says that capturing and storing the carbon in coal can help make coal cleaner and thereby be part of the solution to the carbon dioxide problem.

CHRIS JONES: And it's the idea of capturing carbon dioxide that's produced from combusting fossil fuel so that you can then store it somewhere and prevent releasing it to the atmosphere.

HEIDI CULLEN: A conventional coal-fired plant emits carbon dioxide by burning coal. Carbon capture and sequestration technology, or CCS, starts with the separation of carbon dioxide while generating power. The CO-2 is transported by pipeline to a suitable site where it is injected in liquid form deep underground into a porous layer of rock and sand that can absorb the CO-2 and prevent its escape to the atmosphere.

CHRIS JONES: Like any technology, we need time to ramp up. And given the scale of this particular technology, it is going to take probably on the order of a decade to get this to a reasonable scale where we feel like it has a significant impact.

CCS is going to likely result in an increase in the cost of electricity, but technically all of the individual components of CCS are viable and have already been demonstrated.

Government supports clean coal

HEIDI CULLEN: Much of the country has underground geologies well suited for carbon dioxide storage, but some locations, like most of Georgia, do not.

CHRIS JONES: So if we were to do CCS in Georgia, we would have to pipeline and perhaps send it to other parts of the country that are more amenable to the storage.

HEIDI CULLEN: Some opponents of CCS worry about whether any location can truly contain the CO-2 stored underground. While engineers flesh out those details...

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This afternoon, I met with members of my economic team and...

HEIDI CULLEN: ... the federal government has already committed billions in stimulus money to support large-scale projects for clean-coal technology. Steve Smith says there are things Georgians can and should pursue today to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

STEVE SMITH: Energy efficiency is the first fuel that we should be going to. It is the fastest, cheapest way that we can offset the impacts of global warming.

HEIDI CULLEN: Experts agree that it will take more than efficiency to solve the climate problem, which brings us back to clean coal. If scientists are able to tackle the technical hurdles and if Congress decides to regulate carbon dioxide, clean coal may emerge as another important way to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

That could lead to major changes for big coal plants like Scherer and for Georgians who care about the future of their state and their country.