Coal accounts for 41 percent of the world's energy and remains the number one source of climate-change emissions. In the past four years, new environmental regulations on power plants, increased incentives for wind, and low natural-gas prices have resulted in a 13 percent decrease in coal's portion of domestic energy use. But we can accelerate that trend. "Coal is just criminal," says Kennedy. "Every aspect of its extraction, distribution, and deployment costs lives and imposes health impacts and huge costs."
The best tool Obama has to reduce coal use is to implement the EPA's existing Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which places limits on mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and other toxic emissions associated with coal. But the coal industry has been pressuring the EPA to reconsider the standard, pushing to weaken regulations that could affect dozens of decades-old, heavily-polluting coal plants like Indianapolis' Harding Street Station, which has been in operation for 54 years.
For those who think cutting coal is too expensive in a recession, we must recognize the massive, $60 billion annual health costs associated with burning this fossil fuel – everything from cardiovascular and respiratory illness to premature death. "You could pension off all the 80,000 workers in the coal industry for a tiny fraction of the medical bills due to burning coal," says Burton Richter, a Nobel laureate in physics.