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Coal Ash Spill Protest

Demonstrators chant and hold signs behind a display of coal ash and the chemicals in it.

Coal and railroads are the big winners after the cancelation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion Energy and Duke Energy are absorbing the billions of dollars spent in the development and construction of the pipeline. Environmentalists are celebrating their great victory over the pipeline, but looking further, it is clear that the real winners are the coal companies and railroads who would have lost billions in revenues had the pipeline been completed. Oh, and by the way, coal produces approximately double the CO2 of natural gas, the heavy metal mercury, which has fouled all of the inland waterways of the U.S., making fish unsafe to consume, and very nasty coal ashCoal mining despoils forests and contaminates waterways with its tailings, the waste left behind from mining. Railroads continue to belch diesel to transport coal to power plants. But the environmentalists are happy?

Dominion Energy has a diverse fleet of power stations including solar, hydro, wind, biomass, and nuclear power plants. In addition, there are the old workhorses: coal plants and even oil-fired generators. Duke Energy also has a diversified portfolio of power stations. Thinking ahead, the utilities started the pipeline to bring less expensive and cleaner-burning natural gas to Virginia and North Carolina to accelerate the retirement of the old, dirty and costlier power stations. Less expensive electricity is a key building block of economic development, but now Virginia and North Carolina are disadvantaged to Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana with their abundant, cleaner energy resources.

Railway cargo cars carrying coal

Set of train cars with coal transport by rail – countryside view


The cancellation of the pipeline thereby becomes a burden for those who are left. Because Virginia and North Carolina  both have regulated electricity markets, Duke and Dominion pass along any cost increases directly to the ratepayers. In many cases, it costs more to upgrade a coal plant to meet environmental restrictions than to build a new gas-fired plant. So, the consumers will continue to breathe the air from the dirty coal plants and deal with the ash pond spills while paying for the full costs of the cleanups. Add to this the cost of new, more expensive electricity resources. Voters do not typically enjoy paying higher prices.

Coal as a resource for electricity generation is on its way out for the U.S. Bankruptcies of coal dependent generators and coal mining companies have signaled that the long run economics do not work in the face of less expensive gas and increasingly inexpensive renewables. With this victory over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, some coal communities have been thrown a temporary lifeline at the expense of the environment and the consumer.