Coal dims our future. That is the first thought that comes to mind when I see big piles of the combustible black rock on Portland’s waterfront. As I write this there are mountains of coal at the Sprague Energy terminal next to the Veteran’s Bridge.
Last month the Earth experienced freakish climate change at both poles. Antarctica was 70 degrees warmer than average while the Arctic’s temperature was 50 degrees above normal. This warning sign of the steady increase in the global mean temperature comes amid sea-level rise and the increase in droughts, floods, wildfires, and disruptive storms. By now we know global warming and its consequences are caused by humankind’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The worst culprit has been and remains the burning of coal. In 2019, coal-burning put 14.36 billion tons of carbon dioxide, the worst greenhouse gas, into the air. Burning oil came in second with 12.36 billion tons. Coal and oil are the worst and second-worst culprits.
The world’s best climate scientists tell us that to keep from altering the climate to the point where our home becomes uninhabitable, the increase in the global temperature must stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Under current trends, the world will likely reach that dangerous level of warming by the year 2040.
A rapid phase-out of coal-burning is essential to meeting the climate change target. But coal production and use are still growing. Yes, the U.S. is burning less coal, but this country is more responsible than any other for the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And natural gas, the U.S. replacement for coal, must be replaced too. Yes, a clean energy transition is underway, but the transition is not nearly fast enough yet.
In addition to climate impacts, pollution from coal-fired power plants causes four of the five top causes of mortality in humans: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and respiratory diseases. Exposure to mercury emitted when coal is burned is also unhealthy but poses a particularly notable threat to wildlife, like the celebrated loons on the lakes of Maine. So there are many reasons to oppose burning coal.
So this brings home to Portland the top climate villain. We should ask why we still burn coal and why coal comes through the port of Portland. My best guess is that the coal passing through Portland is headed to the Merrimack Generating Station in Bow, New Hampshire. The Bow plant is one of the last three coal-fired power plants in New England and the only one not slated to be shut down. It is owned by Granite Shore Power of Connecticut.
A coalition of climate activists called No Coal, No Gas has been protesting at the Bow plant for a few years. I joined the group in an uninvited surveillance visit to the plant, on the grounds and inside. No Coal, No Gas, in conjunction with 350NH, has organized blockades of trains carrying coal to Bow. Protests on train tracks have occurred in Worcester, Harvard, and Ayer, Massachusetts, and Hooksett, New Hampshire, resulting in delays and arrests.
Maybe that is why coal is moving through Portland and Maine.
Maximizing efficient use of power and installing renewable energy is making it possible to retire coal plants. So why is dirty black coal stacked up on the banks of the lower Fore River?
Jon Hinck is a lawyer and environmental activist, and former Portland state legislator and city councilor.