As George Bush’s escapades in the
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
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
The problems with this approach are many. For one thing, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that to replace
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
Indeed, these proposed technologies spell bad news for our global environment all-around, since their underlying purpose is to replace part of the
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
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
Residents of the Appalachian coalfields, another community which has been disproportionately affected by
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
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
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.
*KFTC’s website & newsletters, Balancing the Scales
*EIA (http://www.eia.doe.gov/neic/quickfacts/quickoil.html as well as stats on coal consumption)
*“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