Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Coal's Second Chance?

By the second half of the twentieth century, it had been established with reasonable certainty that high-sulfur coal had the potential, when burned, to damage the environment. Scientists hypothesized that this type of coal, also known as ‘lignite’ or brown coal, could be a contributing factor to “acid rain.”

Anthracite, a low-sulfur coal, was by that time recognized as environmentally friendly. Also known as hard coal, it is composed of nearly pure carbon and gives off few pollutants during combustion.

Between those two is a third type, bituminous coal. Known as ‘black coal,’ it contains detectably more sulfur than anthracite. For this reason, some lobbyists and activists wondered if it posed a threat to the environment.

Given the possibility of pollutants from bituminous coal, legislation was enacted to reduce, and in some cases nearly eliminate, its use. Industries hurried to find alternative energy sources. Nuclear power was seen as the future of electrical generation in the early 1970s, and while those plants were being built - a nuclear power plant takes several years to build - natural gas was burnt as a temporary measure to replace some of the coal. Jeanne Marie Laskas writes:

The federal Clean Air Act of 1970 and its amendments in 1977 and 1990 placed stringent controls on the sulfur dioxide emissions from burned coal. Acid rain was the thing. Power plants were forced to turn to more expensive but cleaner-burning natural gas, while the industry flirted with nuclear technology.

The United States had relatively few lignite reserves, and not much of it was mined or burned. The ban on such high-sulfur brown coal had little impact on industry, and seemed reasonable, at least as a temporary measure, until the matter could be further studied.

But bituminous coal was a major industry. It was, and is, a major source of electrical power. Millions of refrigerators, microwaves, computers, lights, iPods, phones, and other devices rely on black coal. Electricity prices increased significantly and suddenly as utility companies tried to quickly find other sources of power. Jeanne Marie Laskas records the impact of this shift in fuel, as thousands of people lost their jobs:

Coal? Suddenly, you could hardly give away the stuff they mined in the East, the medium-sulfur bituminous coal of the Pittsburgh Number 8 seam and similar-grade stuff of the 6A seam.

The media gave black coal a bad reputation and called it “dirty.” Activists had yet to demonstrate any clear link to alleged environmental damage. For the sake of possible connections between bituminous coal and pollution, lobbyists were willing to demand huge strip-mining operations in the western United States, which yielded a type of coal which the industry deemed inferior to bituminous:

That coal burned dirty. Power companies turned to the far less efficient but cleaner coal out west, where very large-scale strip mines became coal’s new cash crop. Mines throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia closed as the industry in Appalachia went into a free fall.

A full-fledged economic disaster threatened thousands of mining families in the eastern states, while all Americans faced rising electrical prices. Regulations were crippling the ability of one large industrial sector, and retarding the ability of several others - all because of an allegation of a hypothetical risk of environmental damage.

Happily, a total disaster was avoided: “The eastern mines started reopening in the late 1990s,” Laskas notes, writing in 2012:

The mines reopened because the power plants had figured out how to burn that gloriously efficient dirty coal and was the emissions, meeting EPA standards. They’re still reopening today, at a fierce rate, thanks to “clean-coal technology.”

Although the “scrubbers,” as the emissions-reducing devices are called, removed even the possibility of environmental harm, they did raise the cost of doing business, and so did not completely remove the burden from ordinary families who must pay for their electrical power needs.

Despite continued attacks from regulators, the coal industry experienced a partial renaissance.

Scientists are figuring out how to convert coal into liquid fuel to power cars and jets. The country is in a decidedly passionate mood to let go of its dependency on foreign oil.

Geologists continue to find new coal reserves, both anthracite and bituminous. Because alternative energy sources - like solar, wind, and geothermal - are still decades away from contributing a significant percentage to the nation’s electrical supply, coal, together with nuclear power, remains the most likely option for the future.

The opponents of the coal industry falls into two camps: first, the sincere environmentalists, who are concerned about the possibilities of environmental harm, no matter how remote or hypothetical; second, the cynical manipulators, who exploit environmentalism as a cover for their true motive, which is a desire to harm the U.S. economy and reduce the standard of living for the ordinary citizen.

The United States has, needs, and can benefit from its large coal reserves, and can do so without measurable harm to the environment. The only obstacle to coal, and to the health of a large segment of our industrial sector, is politics.