Taking our lumps of coal

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New Brunswick stands poised between its very own imaginary rock and theoretical hard place as hundreds of people routinely gather to protest not the actual operations of a shale gas industry, but the very idea of one.

Such is the extraordinary depth of emotion this particular fossil fuel has plumbed in this province and many other jurisdictions around the world: There need not actually exist a wellbore pumping gas from the fracked ground to spark mass hysteria; just the threat of one.

Much of this has to do with the industry’s early record of public consultation, technical disclosure and environmental stewardship – which was not good. Some of it is related to organized information campaigns of various eco-warriors who are determined to drive the western world’s petro-chemical-industrial complex underground any way they can.

But as Premier David Alward juggles the oddly twinned priorities for shale gas development of forging ahead with supporters and stooping to chat with opponents, everyone on both sides of the issue seems blinkered to a far more tangible and existential evil.

Consider a recent Reuters report out of South Korea:

“Coal will surpass oil as the key fuel for the global economy by 2020 despite government efforts to reduce carbon emissions, energy consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie said on Monday (October 14). Rising demand in China and India will push coal past oil as the two Asian powerhouses will need to rely on the comparatively cheaper fuel to power their economies. Coal demand in the United States, Europe and the rest of Asia will hold steady.”

In fact, according to the news item, “Global coal consumption is expected to rise by 25 per cent by the end of the decade to 4,500 million tonnes of oil equivalent, overtaking oil at 4,400 million tonnes, according to Woodmac in a presentation on Monday at the World Energy Congress.”

As a source of energy, coal is both the cheapest and the dirtiest. Burning it produces a plethora of toxins, including nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, arsenic, hydrogen fluoride  chromium, mercury and cadmium. What’s more, coal’s contribution to global warming surpasses those of all other fossil fuels.

Green America, a not-for-profit environmental group that is calling for a moratorium on the stuff, lists a few other choice facts: “Coal is the largest single source of fuel for electricity generation in the world; coal is the most widely distributed fossil fuel, and is mined on all continents except Antarctica; the three of the most affected coal-mining states are Wyoming, West Virginia, and Kentucky; there is enough coal left to last about 200 more years at current rates of production.”

At which time, presumably, old fears about climate change will have become a distant memory for denizens of Planet Hothouse.

Citizens in the developed world have known about coal’s eminent dangers far better and for far longer, than they have about shale gas’s comparatively manageable environmental challenges. And yet, the filthy bitumen continues to drive energy development wherever it’s mined.

“Coal hurts communities, destroys wildlife and countryside and contributes massively to climate change,” the U.K.-based Coal Action network reports. “But coal has also been on the up in the UK over the past five years – some 50 opencast related applications have been approved in that time, and currently there are around 40 at various stages of the planning system.”

We may agree to disagree about hydraulically fracturing shale gas. But the indisputable fact is that this resource is much cleaner than coal and is, for this reason alone, an attractive energy solution.

One’s ideal world may include astonishing breakthroughs in safe, pristine, endlessly renewable power systems and storage cells. We may, some day, pilot our solar-driven airships to our local, organic green grocers.

But we won’t get there from here without deploying some form of fossil fuel to keep the lights of innovation burning into the small hours of the morning.

In this regard, it makes no sense to expand production of coal, the dirtiest form, as the means through which we finally clean up our collective act.

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