Carbon, coal and the Knight Center

By Eric Freedman
President Obama’s recent proposal to reduce power plant emissions that contribute substantially to climate change has drawn renewed attention to the scientifically validated connection between burning coal and disruption of the climate.
It also drew predictable objections from Republicans: job destroyer, too expensive, unnecessary, presidential power grab – even the discredited argument that there’s no such thing as human-induced climate change. The traditional utility industry raised objections as well, centered on practicality and cost.
Coal is important to Michigan – which has no coal mines of its own –which imported more than 7 million tons in the last three months of 2013 to provide more than half the state’s electricity. It’s also important to other Great Lakes states. Indiana, Ohio and Illinois – all of which do have coal mines – were among the five states importing the most coal last year.
The connection between coal and environmental damage isn’t news to those of us at the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

Earlier this year, for example, EJ student RJ Wolcott wrote for our Great Lakes Echo environmental news service about how states in the region are exploring alternatives to coal-fired plants and about how Ontario has closed all its coal-fired plants.
We recently posted a video by EJ student Alexandra Harakas about the country’s largest on-campus coal-fired plant – located here on the Michigan State University campus.
Also in June, Great Lakes Echo posted a Midwest Energy News story by Knight Center alum Andy Balaskovitz about Michigan legislation– just signed by Gov. Rick Snyder – to allow the use of coal ash (and other industrial byproducts) in road construction and for other purposes.
In fact, Great Lakes Echo has been reporting about coal since the earliest days of the news service, such as a December 2009 special report by then-EJ student Rachel Gleason about cleaning coal. Her article begins, “Burning coal is a dirty business.”
Most recently, Knight Center senior associate director Dave Poulson reviewed  Kari Lydersen’s new e-book, Closing the Cloud Factories: Lessons from the fight to shut down Chicago’s coal plants, for Great Lakes Echo. Lydesen herself occasionally writes for Great Lakes Echo.
And my June column for, “Carping about Carbon Emissions,” and a spinoff article for Great Lakes Echo, “Can Curbing Carbon Build the Economy?” discuss some of the political, economic and pragmatic implications for Michigan of the Obama administration’s proposed carbon emissions rule.
At the Knight Center, we know that burning coal will remain a controversial practice for the foreseeable future, with complicated economic, scientific, health, political and practical implications. We’ll continue to teach journalism students and to train professional journalists how to report on the topic and on other complex environmental issues. And Great Lakes Echo will continue to report related news about industry and regulatory practices, legislative debates and scientific findings.
Eric Freedman is director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.