The Capitol Power Plant's Impact

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The April 21 front-page article "Reliance on Coal Sullies 'Green the Capitol' Effort" was a beautifully balanced piece of reporting -- it managed to annoy both environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry, I'm sure.

But is The Post open to a little scientific editing?

Coal combustion is a major source of some noxious effluents but not others. The article took note of carbon monoxide emissions, but modern coal-fired power plants emit little carbon monoxide or soot. They do emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, carbon dioxide and particulate matter. Soot, also called black carbon (think of the stuff that collects inside a fireplace), is not synonymous with particulate matter, which can have any chemical composition. Sulfur dioxide leads to acid rain but not photochemical smog (ozone).

Washington is in violation of the ambient air quality standard for ozone, and oxides of nitrogen are the main culprit. Carbon monoxide plays little role in global warming or damage to vegetation, but it is toxic.

As for the article's statement that "no one knows how much carbon dioxide is emitted from the plant," high school chemistry will get you a good estimate. Each ton of coal produces about 3.7 tons of CO2, so the 17,108 tons of coal burned last year at the Capitol Power Plant produced about 60,000 tons of CO2. Calculations for natural gas and oil are similar.

Want to stop global warming? Start with scientific literacy.

-- Russell R. Dickerson

College Park

The writer is chairman of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company