So, why do we have all these "dirty" coal plants? Market failure? Industry greed? Nope -- Carter-era government policy. For you younger folks, here is a law you may have never heard of:
The Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use Act (FUA) was passed in 1978 in response to concerns over national energy security. The 1973 oil crisis and the natural gas curtailments of the mid 1970s contributed to concerns about U.S. supplies of oil and natural gas. The FUA restricted construction of power plants using oil or natural gas as a primary fuel and encouraged the use of coal, nuclear energy and other alternative fuels. It also restricted the industrial use of oil and natural gas in large boilers.**
In other words, all new fossil fuel-powered boilers had to be coal-fired (which in a year or so, after Three Mile Island, translated to all new boilers since nuclear was essentially eliminated as an option). Yes, this may seem odd to us in an era of so much environmental concern over coal, but something coal opponents don't tell you is that many of the exact same left-liberal-government-top-down-energy-policy types that oppose coal today lobbied hard for the above law several decades ago. Here is a simplified timeline:
1. Government energy policy sets price controls that create artificial shortages of oil and gas
2. Government-created shortages of oil and gas lead to this law, with government demanding that all new fossil fuel-powered electric plants and boilers be coal powered.
3. Government mandates on coal use create environmental concerns, which lead to proposals for taxes and bans on coal power.
4. The need for government action against coal is obviated by a resurgence of oil and gas supply once government controls were removed. However, in response, government beings to consider strong controls on expansion in oil and gas production (e.g. fracking limits).
** I got involved with this because I worked in an oil refinery in the 1980's. We had to get special exemptions to run our new boilers on various petroleum products (basically byproducts and waste products of the refining process). Without these, the law would have required we bring in coal to run our oil refinery furnaces.