Tag Archives: coal

How to defeat that dastardly coal

The world's ballooning use of coal guarantees that hot air will continue to rise

The world’s ballooning use of coal guarantees that hot air will continue to rise

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.

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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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