Coal, long the most dominant generator of electricity in the United States, and the companies which mine this fossil fuel are under attack by regulators both nationally and globally . The fulminations of politicians and journalists are not without merit though; the burning of coal is linked to thousands of premature deaths in the United States and millions of people worldwide . Despite these stark facts, coal continues to supply 29% of the world’s energy supply, indeed even growing from 26% in 1971 . As consumers of this fossil fuel energy, how do we reconcile our addiction to electricity generated from coal with the deleterious contribution that coal-burning makes to green house gas generation and air pollution?
Intriguingly, the conflict between a deeply entrenched product and its dangerous side effects is paradigmatic in the United States. One only needs to consider the sales of cigarettes. Many of the attacks launched at Big Tobacco in the 1990s are being repeated for coal in the present era. In this regard, anti-coal advocates seek to diminish social acceptability of coal and to ramp up costs and cut profits via massive increases in regulation. Indeed the Climate Accountability Institute along with the Union of Concerned Scientists held a workshop that sought to compare the evolution of public attitudes and legal strategies related to tobacco control with those related to anthropogenic climate change .
One of the major coal miners in the USA is Cloud Peak Energy, Inc. This 1,700 employee company supplies about 4 percent of U.S. electricity, which roughly constitutes 15 million homes . Richard Reavey, vice president of public affairs of Cloud Peak Energy, intends to avoid the mistakes made by Big Tobacco decades prior . Rather than debating whether climate change is occurring, he instead advocates talking to critics of the industry about addressing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use . To this end, Cloud Peak Energy is focused on carbon capture and sequestration rather than climate change skepticism. In 2014, Cloud Peak Energy joined the National Carbon Capture Center (NCCC) partnership, which brought together the U.S. Department of Energy, major utilities, and academic stakeholders. The goal of the NCCC is to develop cost-effective CO2 capture technologies that support the continued use of coal for power generation .
Despite significant public and private investment in “clean coal,” results remain elusive as exemplified by the Kemper Project in Mississippi. This groundbreaking new electricity plant employs gasification and carbon capture technologies at a meaningful scale; however, the project is greater than two years behind schedule, and its cost has more than doubled to $6.9 billion from its original estimate [9,10]. Considered to be a central part of the Obama administration’s climate plan, these setbacks impart skepticism to the notion of clean coal.
At any rate, coal still produces 32% of electricity in the USA today, and does not show signs of dramatically slowing down within the next 10-20 years. Cloud Peak Energy could very well benefit from lobbying that some of today’s wind and solar power subsidies be reassigned for the development of carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) technology and plants. Cloud Peak Energy could also position themselves wisely by saddling up next to Hillary Clinton, likely the next President of the USA. Currently, her platform for revitalizing coal communities centers around building new infrastructure and repurposing mine lands and power plant sites . What if instead, effective CCUS technology could eventually be brought to market? Would it not make more sense to upgrade the existing factories, rather than completely wipe clean the histories of families who’ve been working in these mines for generations? Only time will tell if Cloud Peak Energy can operate unscathed in an enemy-filled environment long enough to ascertain if truly clean coal can be achieved.
 “Climate Change Indicators in the United States, 2014,” U.S. EPA, 3rd Ed., 2014. p 73.
 International Energy Agency, “Key World Energy Trends. Excerpt from: World Energy Balances”
 Presentation: Survival is Victory: Lessons from the Tobacco Wars. The 111th RMCMI Convention & Annual Meeting, Snowmass June 28 – 30 2015