To the extent that oil pipelines and drilling operations degrade the land, foul the water, spoil the air and otherwise compromise the environment all creatures big and tiny cohabit, people are right to worry and protest vigorously to their elected representatives when preventable infringements occur.
But the lunacy that now attends nearly every public debate about oil and gas – that these fossil fuels are somehow anthropomorphically evil, and that all who have truck with them are necessarily curtseying before killers – threatens to eclipse a far bigger and more concrete problem.
If we insist on making villains out of inanimate objects, we’d best start by recognizing that the real enemy of the global environment isn’t crude oil or shale gas or even Alberta bitumen; it’s coal. And, since the beginning of the century, use of this cheap, dirty energy source – the one that essentially powered the Industrial Revolution on two continents – has been rising, especially in emerging economic powerhouses, such as China and India, with vast populations to support.
According to the December 16, 2013, bulletin of the International Energy Agency (IEA) – a self-described “autonomous organisation which works to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy” for its membership – “tougher Chinese policies aimed at reducing dependency on coal will help restrain global coal demand growth over the next five years,” but coal will still “meet more of the increase in global primary energy than oil or gas, continuing a trend that has been in place for more than a decade.”
The IEA also predicts that while demand for coal in North America and Europe will flatten over the next five years – the result of tougher environmental regulations, among other factors – the effect will likely be temporary as the price differential between coal and oil will vastly favor the former. Moreover, “for the rest of Asia, coal demand is forecast to stay buoyant. India and countries in Southeast Asia are increasing consumption, and India will rival China as the top importer in the next five years.”
Indeed, observed IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven, “like it or not, coal is here to stay for a long time to come. Coal is abundant and geopolitically secure, and coal-fired plants are easily integrated into existing power systems. With advantages like these, it is easy to see why coal demand continues to grow. But it is equally important to emphasize that coal in its current form is simply unsustainable.”
No kidding. NASA scientist James Hansen has called this black rock “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.” That might be overstating the case just a bit, but there’s no denying the fact that coal-fired plants are atrocious polluters. The short list of toxic byproducts from your average burner might make you faint: mercury (a bonafide nerve poison), nitrogen oxide (which can turn your lungs into soup) and sulphur dioxide (which can, given enough time, stop your heart cold).
Then there’s cobalt, lead, arsenic, particulate matter. chromium, zinc, manganese, and radionuclides. And, let us not forget coal’s particular facility for producing greenhouse gases.
According to Greenpeace (which should have, by now, earned some mainstream street cred), “coal fired power plants are the biggest source of man made CO2 emissions. This makes coal energy the single greatest threat facing our climate. . .Coal is the most polluting of all fossil fuels and the single largest source of global warming in the world. Currently one-third of all CO2 emissions comes from burning coal.”
And, don’t for a minute, get fooled by “clean-coal” claims of carbon, capture and storage technology. It doesn’t exist and probably won’t in any affordable manifestation for several years, even decades.
The inescapable fact is that burning fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) is warming the planet. But not all such fuels are equal in their deleterious effects on the land, water and air we share with all living things.
Unless we are prepared to dismantle our societies, remove ourselves from our various grids, and find several million caves in which to dwell and from which to hunt beasties and gather berries, we’d better use the less harmful fuels at our disposal to wean ourselves from one that really will kill us sooner, rather than later.