Why coal divestment is important

Coal plant

Coal is the worst polluter. Those smokestacks emit a lot more than CO2.

Our goal at Fossil Free California is to reduce investments in all fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—and to publicize their destructive effects. But some institutions, resistant to total divestment, are willing to consider divesting only from coal. Is that a position we can support? Emphatically yes!

A giant step

Divesting from coal is a giant step toward total divestment. We would certainly prefer divestment from oil and gas companies too. But Stanford’s decision last year to purge its $18 billion endowment of coal stocks, for example, was an enormous victory, and the university also pledged that it would review additional divestment. San Francisco State has also divested from coal—and from tar sands as well—and promised to look into “removing all future investments in fossil fuels.”

The question has come up again in the context of Senate Bill 185, Senator Kevin de León’s proposed legislation which directs CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from coal. The bill also mandates that the funds study the feasibility of divesting “additional fossil fuel investments such as natural gas and petroleum.” In other words, SB185 explicitly frames coal divestment as a potential first step toward total fossil fuel divestment.

Too much pollution

But it’s more than merely a step. Purging portfolios of coal stocks is a victory in itself, because it is much more polluting than oil or gas. To produce a million British thermal units (Btu) of energy, anthracite coal spews 229 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Gasoline emits 157 pounds to produce the same amount of energy, and natural gas just 117. These differences result from the varying ratios of molecular hydrogen (clean) and carbon (dirty). If we can prohibit only one type of fossil fuel, coal is an excellent choice.

And those pernicious effects don’t stop with CO2 and global warming. Dr. Linda Rudolph, a preventive medicine physician and member of Fossil Free California, describes its other effects on public health:

Coal combustion releases a toxic soup of chemicals such as nitrogen oxides that contribute to smog, mercury, and particulate matter that together damage the respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems and contribute to heart disease, cancer, stroke, asthma, and chronic lower respiratory disease. Hundreds of thousands of children are born in the U.S. each year with blood mercury levels high enough to cause lifelong loss of intelligence. Coal is harmful to health in every part of its life cycle—from black lung disease and fatal injuries in mining, to flooding and water contamination from surface mining, to particulate matter pollution in coal transport, and coal ash contamination of wells and rivers.

A bad investment

Furthermore, in pure financial terms, coal companies have already proven themselves a bad investment. Over the last four years, for example, the Market Vectors Coal ETF, a global index fund, has fallen from 51.87 to 13.59, plunging almost 75 percent.

Most fossil fuel reserves are coal.

Coal reserves dwarf oil and gas reserves.
(Click to enlarge.)

Even investors who are insensitive to the climatic and health dangers are beginning to see that there is no future in these companies. For instance, the value of Alpha Natural Resources has fallen so far, the New York Stock Exchange notified it yesterday that its stock is now below the permissible listing price threshold. And banking giant HSBC recently warned its clients that coal reserves are in grave danger of becoming stranded assets, along with oil and gas. Since coal constitutes over two-thirds of fossil fuel reserves (see the Fossil Free Indexes chart to the left), it will of necessity take the greatest financial hit.

Is it a good idea to support coal divestment? Emphatically yes!

Here are some earlier posts on coal divestment: