The Climatic Consequences of Coal: Nebraska's Role

Professor Bruce E. Johansen

Why coal? Why here? Why now?

As the dirtiest and most pervasive fossil fuel, coal is the linchpin of global warming.  Continuing to burn coal to generate electricity all but guarantees we will face catastrophic changes in our climate.  Nebraska has no coal resources of its own.  But our role as a transportation corridor from the strip mines of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin has made our state the nexus for coal trafficking in North America—putting us on the frontline of the battle over a new national energy policy.  

Omaha has served as the headquarters of the nation’s largest railroad, the Union Pacific, since its founding.  With Warren Buffett’s recent purchase of the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe (the second-largest railroad in the country), however, this Nebraska city has now become the financial center for America’s railway industry.  Both the U.P. and the BNSF earn about 20 percent of their freight revenues from hauling coal, giving them a direct financial stake in policy discussions in Washington.

Union Pacific and Climate Change

Not surprisingly, the U.P. has been no fan of climate change legislation.  The company itself spent $3 million on lobbying through the first eight months of 2009—the bulk of it opposing the Waxman-Markey “American Clean Energy and Security Act” passed by the House of Representatives climate bill last summer.  But the U.P.’s national influence runs far deeper.

Tom Donohue, the national president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which has adamantly opposed legislation to curb global warming), is a member of U.P.’s Board of Directors.  The U.P. has paid more than $1 million in retainers to Donohue, a board member since 1998.  He also has been granted more than 43,000 shares of Union Pacific stock, and is entitled to nearly 20,000 more shares when he leaves the U.P. board—a combined value about $3.8 million at today’s share prices.

The U.P. has also given $700,000 to the U.S. Chamber since 2004, including $500,000 to the Chamber's "Leadership Fund" (a common name for its political action committees), plus $100,000 to a voter-education project in 2006, and $100,000 to an award ceremony in 2007.

“What is the connection between Union Pacific Railroad, dirty coal and the U.S. Chamber?” Pete Altman of the “Natural Resources Defense Council” asked in a blog last fall.  “The dots connecting them draw what has the appearance of a conflict of interest.” 

So What’s the Matter with Coal?

Nebraska is the only state in the U.S. with a 100-percent public power system.  One might think of that as progressive, but it’s been ‘business-as-usual’ when it comes to energy use—which means burning lots of coal.  Alternative power here has lagged seriously behind the rest of the country.  In Omaha, two-thirds of Omaha Public Power District’s generation comes from coal (nearly all of the rest is nuclear).

OPPD’s and the Nebraska Public Power District’s current goals call for wind energy making up no more than ten percent of their total portfolio by 2020, despite a recent poll (funded in part by the “Center for Rural Affairs”) in which 79 percent of respondents urge 20 percent or more.  Iowa’s private power utilities, in comparison, are doing far better.  Nebraska’s Public Power Districts have obviously been wooed not only by the fact that Wyoming coal is deceptively ‘cheap,’ but plentiful.

Ninety percent of the Earth’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves, in fact, are in the form of coal.  For nations with large populations (such as China which controls 43 per cent of remaining reserves) coal is the fuel of choice.  During the 1980s, China passed the Soviet Union as the world’s largest coal producer, and its generation capacity has continued to grow.  The People’s Republic built 114,000 megawatts of coal-fired power in 2006 and 95,000 more in 2007.

From a ‘greenhouse gas’ point of view, however, coal is the most deadly of the fossil fuels, producing roughly 70 percent more carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated than natural gas, and about 30 per cent more than oil.  It also poses environmental problems other than carbon emissions.  The mining of coal produces methane.  Its combustion produces sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides, as well as carbon dioxide.  And the transport of coal—something of particular relevance to Nebraskans—usually requires more energy than any other fossil fuel.

Coal and Carbon Dioxide

Coal is the source of half the electricity generated in the United States.  Climate activists have concluded that reliance on coal must be reduced sharply if the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to be reduced to safe levels (which celebrated climatologist James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies,  and other scientists have defined as 350 parts per million). 

Why is 350 p.p.m. so important?

Studying the climates of the past can provide clues to the future.  At 380 parts per million, we already have reached the carbon-dioxide levels of the Pliocene (3 to 4 million years ago), when the Earth had very little long-lasting ice, and sea levels were about 100 feet higher than today.  Allowing for what climatologists refer to as ‘thermal inertia’—the roughly 50 years it takes for carbon dioxide in the air to transform into a greenhouse gas (100 to 200 years in the oceans)—we may be well on the way to replicating the conditions of the Pliocene.  This should be cause for concern among the 1 billion people on Earth who live within 100 feet of sea level.

‘Thermal inertia’ is central to global warming.  In general terms, it involves the amount of time required for an action that provokes warmth (such as carbon-dioxide emissions) to reach a given temperature in the atmosphere and oceans.  For example, a frozen turkey placed in an oven at 350 degrees F. does not cook instantly.  It takes a while for the temperature of the thawing turkey to reach equilibrium with that of the oven.  In the same sense, a large body of cold water is more ‘thermally inert’ than the warmer atmosphere above it.  This heat exchange works both directions.  Even after the outside cause producing temperature increases in the atmosphere (such as burning coal for fuel, for instance) is reduced or removed, the lingering inertia in heated air and ocean persist.  Lack of understanding of thermal inertia—with its delayed impact—partially accounts for why many climate skeptics are convinced that global warming is not occurring.

The Window for Action Is Closing

In the meantime, the ratio of carbon dioxide in the air continues to rise 2 to 3 parts per million per year, and a large proportion of that increase is from new coal-fired power.  China, which has become the world’s largest producer of wind turbines and solar panels, also is also bringing on-line one new coal-fired power plant on an average of every two weeks.

Author and activist Bill McKibben is the co-founder of, an activist group that works to publicize the need to bring down greenhouse-gas levels.  The coal question is central to its mission.  But with Congress and the largest member states of the United Nations dragging their feet on addressing the climate crisis, “messengers” like McKibben, Hansen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rajendra Pachauri (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore) are worried that we’re running out of time.  Letters and phone calls are still important, but we have no choice but to ‘take it to the streets.’

In a widely circulated ‘open letter,’ McKibben and the legendary conservationist Wendell Berry called for massive protest at the “Capitol Coal Plant” in Washington, D.C. back in March 2009.  Driven by the conscience and the urgency of their mission, Berry, Hansen and McKibben all publicly faced the prospect of arrest for participating in the nonviolent protest against coal burning.

“There are moments in a nation's—and a planet's—history,” they stated in part, “when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction.  We think such a time has arrived… We have our bodies, and we are willing to use them to make our point. We don’t come to such a step lightly.  We have written and testified and organized politically to make this point for many years, and while in recent months there has been real progress against new coal-fired power plants, the daily business of providing half our electricity from coal continues unabated.  It’s time to make clear that we can't safely run this planet on coal at all.”

The industry claim that there is something called ‘clean coal’ is, they go on to state, is “simply, a lie.”  ‘Clean coal’ is a public-relations gambit—whereby carbon dioxide can allegedly be removed (sequestered) and stored underground, or in some cases, under the ocean. The oceans already have been overloaded with carbon dioxide to a point where their acidity has been increasing, imperiling animals with calcium shells that erode in overly acidic water.

Present technology allows only carbon capture that suffers two debilitating problems.  First, it is expensive, adding roughly a third or more to the cost of generated power.  Secondly, it requires so much additional energy that it nearly defeats its own purpose. Without technological breakthroughs, coal capture remains an industry public-relations stunt, and nothing more.

A call, accordingly, has been rising for a moratorium on new development of coal-fired power because of its climatic consequences.  James Hansen has proposed such a moratorium until technology for carbon-dioxide capture and sequestration is available. About a quarter of power plants’ carbon-dioxide emissions will remain in the air “forever”, i.e., more than 500 years, long after new technology is refined and deployed.  As a result, Hansen expects that all power plants without adequate sequestration will be obsolete and slated for closure (or at least retro-fitting) before mid-century.

Citizen activism has already delayed or derailed 100 of 150 new coal-powered plants that had been proposed five years ago. From streets to statehouses, the conviction is growing that stopping global warming requires stopping coal-fired power because of its key role in the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Hansen was not arrested that wintry day in March at the Capitol Coal Plant.  Nobody was.  But several months later, at age 67, the foremost climatologist in the world was among 31 protesters arrested for allegedly obstructing officers and impeding traffic during a protest against mountaintop mining in West Virginia June 23, 2009.

Life is possible without coal.  We don’t have to freeze in the dark.  There are carbon-free technologies we can be promoting. Here in Nebraska—with the fourth best wind potential in the entire U.S.—clean, green renewable wind and solar energy.  And energy efficiency and conservation.  (The cheapest kilowatt is still the one you don’t use.)

But we absolutely must put an end to the burning of coal.  Spotlighting Nebraska’s integral role as a coal transport ‘enabler’ June 17 in Omaha is the critical step that we can Nebraska can take in our home state to impact the national debate over climate legislation.

See you there.

Bruce E. Johansen is a professor of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of Hot Air and Hard Science: Dissecting the Global Warming Debate and the two-volume Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology.

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June 7th 2010

Chris - Did you drive your car to work? Have you ever been inside union station and learned about how Americas love for the car killed the railroad as a means of public transportation.

June 14th 2010

David - How about some discussion about the growing wind power industry and UP's efforts to profit from that? I sympathize with much of what NFP advocates, but protesting UP for hauling - not demanding or buying - coal is a little like protesting tank truck companies for transporting the gasoline that we all use. We need to focus our efforts (protest and otherwise) on eliminating demand and switching to alternate forms of energy. Union Pacific is going to try to make profit shipping whatever this country demands be shipped from point A to point B, whether it's coal, wind turbines, solar panels, or any other commodity. I wonder what the ultimate end to these means is? If UP did exactly what NFP wished it to do, what would it be? Cease all coal shipments immediately? How would the massive power outages help NFP's larger goal? Perhaps NFP feels that a couple of years without electricity would spur a move to sustainable, non-polluting energy sources?