Understand True Cost of Coal

Gary Wockner, PhD

As President Barack Obama and world leaders meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, this week to discuss the worldwide fight to stop global warming, the citizens of Fort Collins have a unique local opportunity to participate in a microcosm of this planetary story.

The Fort Collins City Council today will be discussing the Platte River Power Authority and its Rawhide Station coal-fired power plant north of Fort Collins from which we all get electricity.

Most citizens of Fort Collins might not be aware of this, but almost all of our electricity comes from highly polluting coal power. PRPA supplies our electricity, and PRPA gets the majority of its power from this one Larimer County power plant.

Additionally, PRPA is a "municipally owned" electric utility - in other words, you own it. If you live in Fort Collins, you own PRPA and you own the Rawhide Station.

And of course, you "own" the pollution that comes out of Rawhide, too.

Coal is a highly polluting energy source. Pollution from burning coal is the No. 1 cause of climate change in the world, in America, in Colorado and in Fort Collins. About 49 percent of Fort Collins' climate change pollution comes from generating electricity by PRPA, and most of that comes from our local power plant.

Just as the world must do in Copenhagen, so, too, must Fort Collins - we need to begin to understand the true cost of our coal power and coal pollution, and then begin to discuss alternatives we can embrace that will help wean ourselves off of coal so we can move toward a clean-energy future.

Rawhide Station is the single biggest polluter in Larimer County. Out of its smokestack, Rawhide emits at least 2.1 million metric tons of CO2 global-warming pollution every year. In addition, Rawhide emits staggering amounts of mercury and many other regulated pollutants.

Many questions surround Rawhide's pollution stream, including but not limited to:

> The total amount of CO2, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide pollution emitted out of Rawhide's smokestack.

> The total amount of heavy metals pollution buried underground, near the groundwater, in the coal ash waste at Rawhide.

> The water pollution that might be surrounding Rawhide because of burial of coal ash and the smokestack emissions.

> The massive environmental devastation that occurs in Wyoming where Rawhide's coal is mined.

> The CO2 and particulate-matter pollution that is emitted by transporting 3.1 billion pounds of coal by diesel locomotive from the mines in Wyoming to Rawhide every year (that's 14,600 train cars full).

> The CO2 pollution that is emitted by pumping 4,200 acre feet of water to Rawhide to help "cool" the powerplant every year.

At its work session today, the Fort Collins City Council will begin the discussion of environmental values and policies of the electric utility that you own. That discussion will continue during the next several months both here in Fort Collins and around the world as we all learn more about global warming and what we can do to fight it.

Let's learn everything we can about the problems with coal, and then let's learn what we can do to fix those problems. Fort Collins needs to continue taking the lead as we move toward a clean-energy economy.

Gary Wockner, Ph.D., is the Colorado program director for Clean Water Action (www.CleanWater.org).