Coal: The Other Fossil Fuel
"The Smoky City" was a major industrial center of the United States in the 20th century. During World War II, Pittsburgh produced more steel than all of Germany. The steel industry centered on the Three Rivers put Pittsburgh on the map, but the Bessemer process that made steel production economical also required a great deal of coal. The smoke turned the skies black; the fires and molten metals from the steel mills made a hellish glow. Pittsburgh was the emodiment of the Industrial Revolution, and as such, cut of the same mold that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien's infernal vision of Mordor. The photo to the right was taken at noon.
Today, Pittsburgh isn't much cleaner, but it is much prettier. Today, it is air pollution from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois that follows the Ohio river valley to settle in Western Pennsylvania.1 The plight of industrial centers like Pittsburgh spurred initiatives to do something about the environment, resulting in "clean-burning" coal, used now almost as if it forms a single, unbreakable phrase. What they succeeded in doing was shifting from pollution we could see, to pollution we can't see. Pittsburgh doesn't look any dirtier than any other city today—but it's still one of the EPA's supersites.
The term "fossil fuels" is often used as if it were synonymous with petroleum, but there are two other fossil fuels, as well. Natural gas is also expected to peak between 2010 and 2020.2 But with coal, as the kids say, we have a "250 year supply." So they say in their commercial, but even their website admits that this is only at current rates of consumption. Coal currently provides nearly half of our electricity; if we were to shift to primarily coal, obviously that number would be cut in half, and if current rates of consumption stay the same, then that means there is no growth—a fundamental assumption upon which our entire civilization is based. So, in fact, as a replacement for petroleum, coal provides for something much less than 125 years.
The shift to coal—and with it, to the Industrial Revolution itself—was, like all such major shifts in human history, largely involuntary. Coal was recognized as an inferior fuel, but was taken up of necessity, first in England, due to the timber crisis.
Coal had a limited use in medieval times, but was the fuel of choice only for blacksmiths. Coal fumes made it less desirable than wood, especially as coal burns poorly—it smokes a lot—in fireplaces designed to burn wood. As long as wood was available, it was preferred. But if wood was short, or coal was cheap, then coal might be used, even if it was used reluctantly. And, of course, the shortage of wood hit cities first; and the bigger the city, the more likely it would be to use coal.
From the earliest times there was considerable prejudice against coal because of the black smoke and fumes that it caused, especially since domestic medieval fires tended to be open affairs. In 1257 Queen Eleanor was driven from Nottingham Castle by the smoke and fumes rising from coal fires in the city below (there was a coal mine within a few miles of the city). In 1283 and 1288 there were complaints about air quality in London because coal was now being used in lime-kilns. In 1307, a Royal Proclamation forbade lime-burners to use coal in parts of south London:
An intolerable smell diffuses itself throughout the neighboring places, and the air is greatly infected, to the annoyance of the magnates, citizens, and others there dwelling and to the injury of their bodily health.
This proclamation did not work, and a later "commission of oyer and terminer" had instructions to punish offenders "with great fines and ransoms" for a first offence, and to demolish their furnaces for a second offence. Economics won out over comfort, however, and London was to remain polluted by coal fumes for another 600 years. Shakespeare's Master Seacole was grubby and dirty, and Queen Elizabeth once stayed away from London because of the "noysomme smells" of coal smoke. The London Company of Brewers, sensitive to the Queen's displeasure, offered to burn wood rather than sea-coal in their breweries close to the Palace of Westminster, since the Queen was "greately greaved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of the sea-cooles."3
Once adopted, though, coal spurred the Industrial Revolution. James Watt's improvement of the Newcomen engine, so often credited with beginning the Industrial Revolution, was invented to pump the water that began to fill the coal mines. Coal mining has always been an inherently dangerous occupation, as one might expect of any job requiring one to tunnel deep into the earth to haul black, dirty rocks where noxious fumes build up. The Smoky City was a center of the steel industry not only because its Three Rivers provided easy transport, but because it was also in the heart of "coal country." Driving for an hour and a half southeast from the city, you'll come to Quecreek, where, in 2002, nine miners were rescued after the mine flooded. Three hours south of the city in January 2006, things did not turn out nearly so well after an explosion in a coal mine in Sago, WV.
About a month ago, an underground explosion killed five workers in Kentucky's Darby Mine No. 1. Coming on the heels of the widely publicized deaths of 12 workers in another coal mine explosion in Sago, W.Va., on Jan. 2, the latest mishap has everyone from Ted Kennedy to Gov. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky crying out for better mine safety. There's a long way to go. More than 104,000 Americans died digging out coal between 1900 and 2005; twice as many may have died from black lung. The fatality rate in coal mining is almost 60 percent higher than it is in oil and gas extraction.
For all that, mining coal probably takes a lot fewer lives than burning it. Although coal-fired power plants generally keep getting cleaner, they contribute about three-fifths of all sulfur dioxide, one-third of all mercury, and one-fifth of all nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States. Air pollution's precise health effects are notoriously hard to quantify, but its links to heart attacks, lung disease and cancer are well established. "Big Coal" includes a chilling quotation from Joel Schwartz, a public health researcher who produced some of the first detailed studies of the toxic effects of air pollution: "I see more people dying of particle air pollution than are dying of AIDS, and I need to call people's attention to that."4
Corey Powell's review of Big Coal for the New York Times starts off with as concise a summary of coal's place in modern civilization as one could ask for:
There is perhaps no greater act of denial in modern life than sticking a plug into an electric outlet. No thinking person can eat a hamburger without knowing it was once a cow, or drink water from the tap without recognizing, at least dimly, that its journey began in some distant reservoir. Electricity is different. Fully sanitized of any hint of its origins, it pours out of the socket almost like magic.
In his new book, Jeff Goodell breaks the spell with a single number: 20. That's how many pounds of coal each person in the United States consumes, on average, every day to keep the electricity flowing. Despite its outdated image, coal generates half of our electricity, far more than any other source. Demand keeps rising, thanks in part to our appetite for new electronic gadgets and appliances; with nuclear power on hold and natural gas supplies tightening, coal's importance is only going to increase. As Goodell puts it, "our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks."
Coal has become near-synonymous with electricity because it is cheap and abundant. A pile of coal containing one million B.T.U.'s worth of energy costs $1.70. The equivalent amount of natural gas runs about $9. All electricity looks the same, so why pay more?5
Electricity is not a primary energy source, but rather an "energy carrier": zero mass, travels near the speed of light, and, for all practical purposes, it can't be stored. Moreover, electric power systems are costly, complex, voracious of fuel, polluting, and require 24h-7d-52w maintenance and operations. Another problem is that electricity is taken for granted. Just flip the switch and things happen. In short: Electricity is the quintessence of the 'modern way of life', but the electric power systems themselves are demanding, dangerous, and delicate. All this suggests that permanent blackouts will be strongly correlated with the collapse of Industrial Civilization—the so-named "Olduvai cliff," discussed later.6
As Duncan "briefly explains" in his abstract, "When the electricity goes out, you are back in the Dark Age. And the Stone Age is just around the corner."
But the health effects of coal noted even in the Middle Ages have not abated with the passage of time, obviously. "Clean-burning coal" continues to poison our air. Because of the uranium impurities in coal, and because coal plants are not built with radioactivity in mind the way nuclear power plants are, "Americans living near coal-fired power plants are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants."7 Moreover, the energy that could be generated from those impurities in a nuclear power plant is actually greater than the energy produced from burning the coal itself.8
Then there's global warming. To avoid dangerous climate change, many scientists argue that we must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent to 70 percent by 2050. Coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, is responsible for nearly 40 percent of American emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Since 1990, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel power plants have increased by 27 percent, compared to 19 percent from all sources nationally.9
The smoke from coal once turned the city I live in to midnight at noon. It continues to poison my air as it wafts up the river from Ohio and beyond, and to continue this, they're destroying the places I love most and hope to one day make my home.
There was a time in this region when union miners would have extracted the coal that lies beneath Lost Mountain with hand picks and shovels in deep underground shafts. But twenty-six years after Jimmy Carter signed into law the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), the coal industry has developed much more expedient and much more destructive methods of mining. Instead of excavating the contour of a ridge side, as strip miners did throughout the 1960s and '70s, now entire mountaintops are blasted off, and almost everything that isn't coal is pushed down into the valleys below. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 700 miles of healthy streams have been buried by mountaintop removal - some say the number is twice that - and hundreds more have been damaged. Blasting on the mine sites has cracked the foundations of nearby homes and polluted hundreds of family wells. Creeks run orange with sulfuric acid and heavy metals. Wildlife populations have been summarily dispersed. An entire ecosystem has been dismantled.10
"Mountain Top Removal" strips off the tops of mountains and throws them into valleys, leveling off whole mountain ranges to expose coal in a strip mining operation par excellence. Beyond the sheer horror of transforming the landscape on such a basic level, the ecological implications involve poisoned rivers and streams and the wholesale obliteration of entire habitats.
Throughout history, humanity has moved to lower quality resources as those resources we preferred were wiped out. This was how the bronze age transitioned into the iron age11 Will we move to coal, as oil becomes more expensive? Coal is still extremely efficient, in pure terms of EROEI, particularly in the United States.
If you turn to coal, we're now using twice as much energy from oil as we are from coal. So if you want to liquefy coal as a substitute for oil in transportation—which is its most important application—you would have to mine coal at a rate that's many, many times at the rate of what we're doing now. But the conversion process is very inefficient. So you'd have to mine much more than that. If you put that together with the growing world population and the fact that the rest of the world wants to increase its standard of living, you realize that the estimates that say we have hundreds of years worth of coal in the ground are wrong by a factor of ten or more. So we will run out of all fossil fuels. Coal will peak just like any natural resource. We will reach the peak for all fossil fuels by the end of the century.12
Nuclear power is not an answer, either, even though it's far more attractive than coal; neither are any of our "alternative fuels." There may be enough uranium for another 50 years of nuclear power,13 and other options, such as thorium, remain experimental at best. There is no switch-out techno-fix that will allow us to continue living as we have, but blind pursuit of will-o-wisps like coal or nuclear could cause far greater trouble than we've already stirred in ecological ramifications, without any actual payoff, since neither can avert the basic fact that we're living beyond our means, and we need to powerdown.
The biggest problem with our bounty of coal is not what it does to our mountains or the atmosphere, but what it does to our minds. It preserves the illusion that we don't have to change our lives. Given the profound challenges we face with the end of cheap oil and the arrival of global warming, this is a dangerous fantasy.14