Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Canary in the Coalmine

An abbreviated, *heavily-edited* version of this article appeared in the November 2007 issue of Gobar Times, a youth magazine published by the Centre for Science and Environment.

As George Bush’s escapades in the Middle East continue to sour and petrol prices rise ever higher for the American citizen-consumer, more and more voices are clamoring for “energy independence” and “freedom” from foreign oil. While U.S. environmentalists have long called for a strong emphasis on efficiency and increased investment in renewable energy technologies, their demands are being diluted and sidetracked as big business interests and their political cronies join the bandwagon. Their goal: massive government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in hopes of developing a technological fix which will preserve the (wasteful) “American way of life.” So-called “advanced” coal technologies, such as coal-to-liquid and coal-to-gas, are prime examples of such hopeful techno-fixes. Actually both of these technologies have been around for some time, but have not been utilized extensively because of their inefficiencies and/or high costs. It is important that we understand the full implications of these technologies before they become more widely implemented.


The gasification process used for coal is essentially the same as that used for other carbon-based “feedstocks” such as biomass and waste materials. The coal is subjected to carefully-controlled chemical processes under high temperature and pressure, ultimately resulting in a gaseous mixture. The contents of this mixture, consisting of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and other compounds, can then be used for fuel or other commercial products. A new generation of U.S. power-plants, with two already on-line and a few dozen more proposed as of 2007, will utilize this coal gasification process and are known as Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle, or IGCC.

While proponents of these plants promise higher levels of efficiency and better reduction/capture of pollutants, to-date the significantly higher capital costs of IGCC plants means that they can only function with large government subsidies. The U.S. state of Minnesota has already rejected one proposed IGCC plant because of its high costs and relatively low guarantee of pollution reduction as compared to standard coal-fired power plants updated with the latest pollution control technologies. Additionally, some researchers have raised concerns about increased wastewater and mercury pollution using IGCC technology.


If coal gasification is questionable, coal-to-liquid is downright shady. In order to liquefy coal, it is first gasified, as in the process described above. The gaseous mixture is then converted, via a chemical process known as “Fischer-Tropsch” (FT) into a number of liquids such as ammonia, naphtha (petroleum ether), methanol, and diesel. As with gasification, the FT process can be used with a wide variety of feedstocks. Proponents of this technology argue that by ramping up the U.S.’s consumption of coal and converting this coal into liquid fuel for transport, the U.S. could eliminate its current importation of >10,000,000 barrels of oil/day.

The problems with this approach are many. For one thing, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that to replace U.S. oil needs, coal consumption would have to increase several-fold. Meanwhile, the National Coal Council has stated that even a doubling of domestic coal production would require “major investment and effort” and could not be accomplished for another twenty years. Not to mention the estimated 132 massive new power plants which would be required to manufacture this fuel, with each plant taking in between 40,000-80,000 tons of coal/day (depending on the quality of coal used) and churning out 80,000 barrels of oil/day. Each of these plants would cost approximately four times as much to build as an equivalent petroleum refinery.

Coal-to-liquid is a losing proposition for the climate as well, producing nearly twice the CO2 as the petroleum refining process; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns that replacing petroleum with liquefied coal would lead to a 119% increase in greenhouse gas emissions—an increase the planet can hardly afford given the U.S.’s already record-high emissions. The sizable investments required and low payback make this technology uneconomical without massive government subsidy, which is why to-date it has only been used on a large scale in Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa, two regimes which were cut off from international oil supplies and hence had no other options.

Coal woes

Indeed, these proposed technologies spell bad news for our global environment all-around, since their underlying purpose is to replace part of the U.S.’s petroleum and natural gas use with increased coal consumption. A resource that is relatively cheap and plentiful within North America, coal consumption increased nearly 11% between 1996 and 2006. Under these schemes proposed by coal interests, coal consumption would rise even more dramatically. Already, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates 139 GW of new coal-based generating capacity will be added to U.S. energy grids by 2030.

As with any potential energy source, we must evaluate the entire life-cycle costs of coal: these include mining, transportation, and processing of coal as well as power plant and pipeline construction, the air/soil/water pollution and greenhouse gases emitted through burning coal, and the disposal of the coal waste that remains after it has been burned. On all these fronts, coal gets extremely low marks and has been deemed “the dirtiest of all fuels” by the U.S.-based Clean Air Task Force. Worldwatch estimates that coal-fired power plants cause >40% of the U.S.’s annual mercury emissions, and that Americans spend more than $160 billion/year in medical expenses resulting from power plant-generated air pollution. In addition, coal is the most CO2-intensive of any fossil fuel, emitting approximately three pounds of CO2 for every pound of coal burned. Coal currently supplies more than half of the U.S.’s electricity and accounts for 40% of its overall CO2 emissions.

The U.S.’s “energy sacrifice zones”

As is often the case when examining the full costs of environmental degradation, we find that these costs have not been distributed equitably. For instance, one report which examined the how the effects of coal combustion are distributed found that African Americans are significantly more likely than white Americans to live near coal-fired power plants and power plant waste sites, and a likely result of that proximity is that African Americans suffer from higher rates of asthma and other air quality-related health problems. Similarly, the nation’s first proposed coal-to-oil facility is to be sited nearby a prison in a poverty-stricken area in eastern Pennsylvania.

Residents of the Appalachian coalfields, another community which has been disproportionately affected by U.S. coal consumption, have good reason for concern when they hear of schemes that would increase coal mining in the region several-fold. Appalachia is named for the ancient mountain range that defines the region’s geography; it includes parts of 13 U.S. states and is roughly the same size as the United Kingdom. Originally inhabited by Native Americans, the area was re-settled by immigrants of largely Scottish, Irish, German, and English descent in the 18th century. Due to the mountainous terrain and relative isolation of the region that resulted, much of these immigrants’ culture remained relatively intact. Today however Appalachia is home to over 20 million people and is undergoing rapid economic, cultural, and demographic changes.

The region is also known as the home to some of the richest coal seams in the world, and has for generations supplied that fuel to the U.S. and other nations, too often at great ecological and social costs. Teri Blanton, a native of Appalachia and a long-time anti-mining activist, has stated: “Harlan County [a coal mining county in Appalachian eastern Kentucky], my home county, has produced over 1 billion tons of coal in the past century, yet…coal has left us with polluted water, a corrupted political system, poor schools, too many unhealthy people, and a disappearing heritage. And today the destruction is increasing.”

Among the many unfavorable consequences resulting from coal mining in the region, perhaps the most striking is the proliferation of a destructive form of surface or strip mining known locally as “mountaintop removal.” Mountaintop removal uses heavy machinery and high-powered explosives to literally destroy the part of the mountain which covers the coal seam, dumping the resulting “waste” into nearby valleys and streams. Seen as a labor and money-saving method of mining by the coal companies, strip mining and other technological advances have been replacing underground mining for a few decades now. In the past 50 years, the mining workforce has decreased from 335,000 coal miners working in 7,200 mines to 104,824 miners working in less than 2,000 mines. This declining workforce has occurred despite an 83% increase in production over the past 30 years.

In addition to a decline in some of the best-paying jobs the region has to offer, Worldwatch estimates that mountaintop removal has already “buried or polluted more than 1,200 miles [>1900 kilometers] of streams, destroyed more than 7 percent of Appalachia’s forests, and eliminated entire communities. If current trends continue over the next decade, affected land will cover 2,200 square miles [nearly 5,700 square kilometers]...” These “affected lands” of Appalachia include people’s homes, farms, places of worship, and family cemeteries, lands that the current residents are not willing to give up without a fight.

Already hard-hit by coal mining and supplying up to 1/3 of the U.S.’s coal consumption per year, Appalachia obviously has a huge stake in any proposals which would increase that consumption, especially given that the “most accessible” coal seams have largely already been mined out. While coal companies pay off local politicians to do their bidding and try to seduce citizens with promises of jobs and wealth, residents of these sacrifice zones know better and have started organizing against increased coal mining. In the words of one resident of the coalfields, “…coal has been dominant in Appalachian economies for a hundred years now and they are still some of the poorest counties in the U.S.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), one group of concerned citizens, has founded a statewide “Canary Project,” the aim of which is to move their communities beyond the long-standing domination of the coal industry. Explains KFTC, “For years, coal miners would take canaries into the mines to warn of dangerous gases. When the canaries died, the miners knew it was time to get out of the mine. Now, we are the canaries, warning everyone about the dangers of coal before it is too late. We no longer believe the big lie that coal is a cheap source of energy, and we are no longer willing to have our homes and lives sacrificed for coal company profits.”

To raise awareness of their concerns, coalfield inhabitants have also created a virtual “memorial for the mountains." This website uses Google Earth software to tell the stories of coalfield residents and more than 470 mountains destroyed by mountaintop-removal through photos, stories, and interviews; stories such as those of the students at Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia, whose school is located directly downhill from an impoundment holding back 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge. If this impoundment were to become breached, the students would have only a few minutes to evacuate before being buried under several feet of coal sludge.

As in India and throughout the world, the livelihood of one group of people is being sacrificed so that others can enjoy wasteful lifestyles and outsource the consequences. But the citizens of Appalachia have had enough and are busy opposing the implementation of any technologies that will lead to increased coal consumption and increased destruction of their communities. Instead, they have joined forces with other environmentalists in calling for environmental justice and a clean energy future for the U.S. and the planet.

*KFTC’s website & newsletters, Balancing the Scales

*EIA (http://www.eia.doe.gov/neic/quickfacts/quickoil.html as well as stats on coal consumption)

*DOE (http://www.fossil.energy.gov/programs/powersystems/gasification/index.html)




*EPA (http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/coal.htm)

*“Cradle to Grave: The Environmental Impacts of Coal.” Clean Air Task Force, June 2001 (also has a great graphic, “Figure 1 illustrates the numerous ways that contaminants from coal end up in the environment”)

*“Air of Injustice: African Americans and Power Plant Pollution,” Black Leadership Forum et al, Oct. 2002

*“American Energy: The Renewable Path to Energy Security,” Worldwatch Institute & Center for American Progress, Sept. 2006

*Wikipedia “Appalachia”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachia