Coal Day In Hell

Coal is not good. Coal has no future. Yet, its Frankensteinian corpse is being revitalized by lawmakers and  the future of the coal industry is not as grim as it should be. So we dig for coal, and in process, we dig our own graves.

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Coal is not good. Its difficulty to mine, transport and noxious burning severely limited coal’s widespread use when it was first discovered in pre-Industrial times. However, since then, our economies has dramatically shifted and now coal is the power behind many a developing nation. However, coal costs only 4 cents per kW-hour, which is the cheapest among all the alternative fuels if you exclude hydroelectricity (which is not really abundant). In comparison, natural gas and nuclear power costs 5 cents/kWh and wind costs 7 cents/kWh while solar energy costs whooping 50 cents/kWh. Coal’s relative cheapness becomes more apparent if one takes its energy density into account-energy from coal is roughly one-tenth the cost per unit mass as oil or natural gas (see Robert Zubrin’s Energy Victory, 2007).

In 2004, the New York Times ran an article, “Fuel of the Future? Some Say Coal,” which discusses the possibilities of lucrative investments in newly resurgent coal sector. Although policy uncertainty poses big risks for such investments in the coal industry, the investors are banking on the fact that the U.S. government would be unwilling/unable to take punitive actions against the coal industry.

Currently, America is driven by its own energy thirst. Although America’s own dependence on coal is not as serious as those of growing, developing Asian countries, the U.S’s own national security is at the stake with coal. As the possessor of the world’s largest hard coal reserves, the United States would not–and could not–let the industry die. After the September 11 attacks, the coal industry gained support from the American government which aimed to reduce its dependence on the Middle East Oil. 

Bureaucracy kept coal alive. Current Energy Secretary Stephan Chu once said, ‘Coal is My Worst Nightmare’. On the campaign trail, Obama was under criticism for saying that new coal plants will face bankruptcy unless they account for the future. However, now Washington, both of them have changed their tunes and seem to have espoused Bush’s Clean Coal Doctrine.  

Coal being such an important political, economical and social issue, it is not very surprising that there are attempts to make coal producing and coal consuming more palatable. At the forefront is the ambitiously titled “Clean Coal” initiative, supported by President George W. Bush and quickly endorsed by both Senators McCain and Obama during the election season last year. However, as the Sierra Club’s director Dan Becker pointed out, ‘clean coal’ is an ‘oxymoron’. The industry use the term to loosely refer to the number of technologies being developed to reduce the negative externalities of the coal usage. Burning coal produces chemical impurities (carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, etc) which intoxicate the environment by poisoning water supplies, polluting air and creating acid rains. Chemically washing minerals from the coal, capturing noxious emissions and storing them, and dewatering coal are a few methods proposed for clean coal but they are merely cures but not preventions.

The most vocal clean coal technology (and lobby, one is tempted to add) concerns removing of ash, soot and other particulates from the exhaust of the coal-fired generators, and desulfurization. However, after carbon capture and storage or IGCC installations, the cost of coal power will be raised by 40-90 percent (Sierra Club statistics). If this is the case, natural gas and nuclear power seem better alternatives. Even if American aid goes to clean emerging Asian coal plants, retrofitting old plants is a costly, efficiency-reducing and long-term process. In addition, ‘clean coal’ initiative blithely ignores other devastations caused by coal mining and transportation not to mention toxic ground water caused by the chemicals used in mining and bitumen.

In addition, coal advocates predicts the future as if the coal reserves of the world are limitless. This is not the case–if coal is produced at the current rates, the U.S. reserves would last only sixty four years. 

There are no real solutions to the coal dilemma–increasing the efficiency of the coal power plants fall under the umbrella of the clean coal, but a better alternative is to create internal market for carbon sequestration through cap-and-trade system. Carbon tax is an effective blanket tax on all emissions, but the political feasibility of such a tax is near zero. However, coal usage could be gradually phased out in the United States; first old coal power plants where there is extremely high cost for limited benefit can be effortlessly shut down. New coal plants should go through a thorough federal scrutiny and should be forced to use cleaner and more efficient method so the production will be economically unprofitable. However, in the other countries (especially China), such a control would be impossible. 

So the next time someone say we must find the new alternative energies to break oil addition, please be aware that we must break coal addiction too. Coal is not a substitute for oil, and coal addiction is not the substitute for oil addiction.

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