Watching TV lately there are mixed messages regarding the very abundant and cheap non-renewable resource, coal. Coal, originally plant matter, is geologically stored carbon. This formerly atmosphere-biosphere carbon was stored hundreds of millions of years ago in geologic sediment.
One set of TV commercials would have the viewers believe that coal is now pollution free and climate change friendly. The other camp of commercials tries to cleverly debunk that claim.
A few facts about coal and the way we use it are needed to get to the center of this issue.
1. The US and the world use a lot of coal making it the largest source of energy in the world. Likewise coal use is the largest source of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
2. There are many types of coal stored beneath the earth’s surface but all release pollutants when burned. In the US all of these pollutants are now regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect human and environmental health.
3. When coal emissions are not regulated, human and ecological health of vast regions suffer enormously (China effectively turned off huge areas of coal electricity production during the Olympics this summer to improve air quality).
4. Coal uses a lot of clean water
5. Coal is plentiful and cheap.
6. The extraction of coal from the earth is polluting and hazardous to humans and the environment.
7. Experts expect coal use to continue and expand in the coming decades.
With that in mind, the coal industry has set out to sway public opinion using insincere techniques and claims. Coal is not clean but the immediate negative effects (smog, mercury, heavy metals) to human health and the environment can be minimized with government regulation. Technologies to capture and store the greenhouse gases emitted by coal burning are in their infancy and by all accounts are a long way from effectively mitigating coal’s massive contribution of greenhouse gases to global climate change. Even with these technologies to store the carbon and clean the smokestacks, coal extraction remains an environmental problem in itself.
TV has shown us that both sides can generate slick advertising and confound the public. The “clean coal” buzzword has even been used by President-elect Obama. How will coal fit into the Obama Presidency’s green initiative? I hope at a minimum, the massive government investments that would be needed to make coal carbon storage a reality don’t outweigh investments in clean and green renewables.
Excellent report detailing how the world is committed to coal: http://web.mit.edu/coal/The_Future_of_Coal_Summary_Report.pdf
Credible information about the advances and limits of carbon storage and sequestration from coal emissions: http://sequestration.mit.edu/technology_overview/index.html
The Government Accountability Offices recent report on the topic: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-08-1080
The counterpoint in the media to the coal industries efforts: http://action.thisisreality.org/facts
Click here to learn more about the Cap and Trade system.