Our Suicide Mission with Coal
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As the global energy/climate crisis deepens, coal has become the starkest symbol and most telling measure of our predicament. Coal produces more carbon emissions than other energy sources -- more than twice that of natural gas per unit of energy output. Consequently, coal-fired power plants are responsible for about one-third of US emissions of carbon dioxide. Despite this, we are mining and burning more coal than ever.
On March 18, the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) released an analysis of EPA data showing that carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power industry increased by 2.9 percent in 2007 and have risen 5.9 percent since 2002. Coal is the culprit.
According to an Associated Press report, the cause of last year's increase was a combination of three factors: increased electricity demand; a shortage of hydroelectric power, leading to greater reliance on coal, and the reduced efficiency of aging coal-burning power plants.
While utilities around the nation have plans to construct more than 100 new coal-fired power plants, public concern over global warming and toxic pollution has put the brakes on many of them. Last year in Texas, public interest groups prevented TXU Energy from going ahead on eight new coal-fired plants that would have increased the state's emissions by 24 percent, according to the EIP report.
But as demand for electricity rises and cleaner fuels like natural gas get scarcer and more expensive, the relentless pressure to burn coal fuels delusions such as "clean coal."
"Clean coal" is a combination of two technologies, one of which is expensive and the other completely unproven. The expensive one is coal gasification, and it is a genuinely cleaner way of burning coal. It involves baking coal to drive off gasses that aren't much dirtier than natural gas, and the gasses then are burned for power production. This technology costs a minimum of 20 percent more than a conventional pulverized coal plant, which is why only two such plants exist in the United States.
The other part of the "clean coal" scheme involves carbon capture and storage. This technology is not proven and the potential costs are enormous. A US Department of Energy pilot project called FutureGen was recently canceled with the DOE citing soaring cost projections among its reasons for ending the project.
But even if the "clean coal" idea were workable, the realities of the coal fuel cycle ensure that coal can never be truly clean.
At the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon, in early March, a panel of citizen activists talked about the front and back ends of coal use: mining and waste disposal. Teri Blanton, of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth spoke about the heartbreak of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. The mining technique is dynamiting hundreds of thousand of acres of biologically diverse forest ecosystems to get at the coal underneath, and dumping the waste into streams. Blanton told the story of one of her neighbors who lost his land to a mining company. "When I say he lost his land," she said, "I mean he literally lost his land. One day he found that his land was just gone, blasted away to nothing."
According to the group Appalachian Voices, more than 800 square miles of mountains have already been destroyed by mountaintop removal and if the blasting continues unabated it will devastate an area the size of Delaware by 2010.
Coal mining also uses great quantities of water and pollutes streams in the process. Slurries of waste laden with toxic heavy metals are leaching into streams and river systems. Earthen impoundments that hold back the sludge are unstable and threaten communities. A sludge dam breach in 2000 in Martin County, Kentucky, dumped more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge, killing virtually all aquatic life for 70 miles downstream of the spill.
Brad Bartlett of the Energy Minerals Law Center talked about the post-combustion end of coal. Air pollution controls at existing coal plants capture 125 million tons of pollutants, amounting to "the largest solid waste stream in the US," according to Bartlett. He said that it is not formally regulated as hazardous waste despite the presence of heavy metals and other toxins. Some of it is used to make building materials and roads, but the rest is just landfilled.
When you think of Alaska, you usually think of oil, not coal, but Vanessa Salinas of Alaskans for Responsible Mining said that Alaska also has huge amounts of coal -- about one-eighth of the world's coal reserves and half of US coal reserves. Currently there is only one operating coal mine in Alaska, but BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, is conducting an extensive coal exploration program and four new strip mines are being proposed.
Alaskans should be more concerned than most people, Salinas said, because global warming impacts are being felt more strongly in the Arctic than anywhere else. On February 26, the tiny village of Kivalina sued two dozen oil, power and coal companies over their greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Melting sea ice is exposing the village to erosion from storm waves and surges.
Coal burning also threatens Alaska's famed fishing industry. Coal is notorious for its mercury pollution, and older marine fish are showing increasing levels of mercury. Salinas blamed coal burning pollution from Asia and noted that most of the coal mined in Alaska would be shipped to Asia. In this way Alaskans would poison their own fishing industry.
Salinas has worked with Native Alaskans to stop these coal mines. She said Native people have told her that they feel coal functions as "the liver of the world" and it should be left in the ground. Coal as the "liver" of the world is not a bad metaphor. Coal is not just another mineral; it is biological. It is the remains of ancient life. The liver cleanses toxins from the body, and coal, if left in the ground, keeps our climate cool and our air and water clean.
While Alaskan coal is destined to be shipped to Asia, it looks like Appalachian and even Wyoming coal will increasingly be shipped to Europe. Recent reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post describe a spike in global coal consumption. With the falling dollar value, American coal is now a bargain for overseas buyers; however, that is in the context of an overall price rise that is unprecedented. Spot market coal prices have risen by 50 percent or more in recent months. Coal consumption worldwide has increased by 30 percent over the last six years.
American electricity consumers are used to hearing that coal is much cheaper than renewable alternatives like solar and wind, but that might not be true for long. Consumers haven't seen the impact of expensive coal yet because most utilities lock in coal supplies with long-term contracts. Electricity rates will begin to shoot upwards when those contracts expire in the years ahead.
There is no chance that prices will come back down again either, because Peak Coal, like Peak Oil, is fast approaching. Journalist David Strahan, in a January 17 article for New Scientist, has documented what's known about coal reserves. He concludes that the official figures, like the official figures for recoverable oil reserves, have been vastly inflated.
On March 18, Standard & Poor's released a study concluding that utilities and states with Renewable Portfolio Standards need to do a better job of revealing how expensive their mandates for renewable solar and wind power will be. By that same token, utilities should be required to reveal all of the current and future costs for dirty and increasingly expensive coal power.
Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry.