Beautiful Clean Coal

“We have ended the war on beautiful clean coal.”

Donald S. Trump, State of the Union 2018


So, it is recorded for history, Donald Trump’s misunderstandings of science, along with his cavalier plot of the trajectory of Hurricane Dorian with a black sharpie and recommendations that injecting bleach might cure COVID.

Recent work reported in Science indicates that fine particulate matter—always a pernicious air pollutant—from coal-fired power plants caused 2.1 times greater mortality than all other sources of PM2.5 in the atmosphere between 1999 and 2020.  In the United States, as many as 460,000 “excess” deaths were attributed to fine particles from coal-fired power plants during that period (N.B. PM2.5 are particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter).  Fine particulate matter is associated with respiratory failure and promotes lung cancer.

Similarly, during the 1950s, when China subsidized the use of coal for heating in cities north of the Huai River, but not those to the south, subsequent levels of cardiorespiratory mortality strongly reflected this division.  Levels of PM10 were 42 ug/m(46%) higher north of the river, and human life-span was reduced by an average of 3.1 years, largely through increased occurrence of cardiovascular disease.   For studies in Beijing, where PM2.5 exceeded 115 ug/m3 for more than 6 days, the excess risk of mortality (mortality above expected levels) was about 40%.

The new work indicates that particles from coal-fired power plants are more deadly than those from other sources of fine particles, including forest fires and ammonium-based nitrogen fertilizers.  Sulfur dioxide emissions were used to estimate fine particulate matter from coal, which often forms by atmospheric reactions involving SO2.

Mercifully, a few years ago, the EPA directed electric utilities—much to their objection—to remove fine particles from smokestack emissions. Regionally, in North Carolina, studies by Drs. Julia Krauchanka and H. Kim Lylerly of the Duke University Medical Center found lower rates of mortality after the passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act.  The science was right, and the air we breathe is much cleaner for it.  There is nothing beautiful about coal.



Ebenstein, A., M. Fan, M. Greenstone, G. He and M. Zhou. 2017. New evidence on the impact of sustained exposure to air pollution on life expectancy from China’s Huai River Policy.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114: doi: 10.1073/pnas.1616784114

Hill, W., et al. 2023.  Lung adenocarcinoma promotion by air pollutants.  Nature 616: 159-165.

Kravchenko, J., I. Akushevich, A.P. Abernethy, S. Holman, W.G. Ross, and H.K. Lyerly. 2014. Long-term dynamics of death rates of emphysema, asthma, and pneumonia and improving air quality. International Journal of COPD 9: 613-627

Lelieveld, J., J.S. Evans, M. Fnais, D. Giannadaki and A. Pozzer.  2015.  The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale.  Nature 525: 367-371.

Pope, C., M. Ezzati, and D.W. Dockery. 2009.  Fine-particulate air pollution and life expectancy in the United States.  New England Journal of Medicine 360: 376-386.

One thought on “Beautiful Clean Coal

  1. Why is no one writing about the massive build-out of new coal plants in Communist China? These plants are radically increasing global CO2 while the US has been drastically lowering its emissions. It makes the US look like a naive, wishful thinking child as we reduce our base load capacity and compromise our grid reliability in the name of a now obviously unobtainable worldwide ‘sustainability’.

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