Coal, known as “King coal” or “black gold” for its historic economic influence, is also known as the “dirtiest fuel,” the most carbon-intensive and toxic hydrocarbon. The industry has promoted “clean coal,” but since they have exhausted Earth’s premium mines, coal actually gets dirtier every year.
Coal, like oil, represents the organic remains of ancient photosynthesis. Oil is primarily the residue of marine algae trapped in ocean sediment, whereas coal originated from land plants buried under soil. During photosynthesis, plants reduce atmospheric carbon-dioxide (CO2) to produce glucose, the basis of all complex organic molecules in plants and animals.
In most cases, when organisms die, bacteria oxidize the carbon molecules back to CO2. In exceptional cases, in low-oxygen environments, the molecules remain preserved as hydrocarbons with the solar energy locked inside. When we burn coal, oil, or gas, we release ancient solar energy. We get warm, cook food, make steel, and race automobiles, with ancient sunlight. However, when we burn coal and oil, we also release the carbon back into the atmosphere. And there, as we now know, lies the rub.
Draining the Dregs
Most modern coal deposits, about 56%, originated with the first land plants, about 300 million years ago. We call this historic period the “Carboniferous” precisely because marine and land plants reduced massive volumes of carbon from the atmosphere and thereby changed Earth’s ecological regime. We won’t be surprised that Earth’s temperature dropped precipitously during this period as CO2 left the atmosphere to become carbohydrates and proteins in living organisms. Younger coal deposits formed in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, 100 to 200 million years ago. During this period, however, as land animals and dead organic matter returned carbon to the atmosphere, Earth warmed again. About 64 million years ago, the now famous asteroid hit Earth in the Yucatan, changed the ecological order again, and Earth cooled until humans started mining and burning that ancient sunlight.
Humans discovered coal about five millennia ago in China, where inhabitants used the black rock for heating and metallurgy, particularly smelting copper. Later Greek and Roman empires mined and burned coal. The Aztecs in Mexico burned coal and carved it for ornaments.
In hydrocarbon deposits, pressure over time progressively concentrates the energy. Peat, the precursor to coal, contains about 7,500 BTUs (British thermal units) per pound, about the same as wood. Imagine burning a pound of wood in a wood stove. That’s how much energy a pound of peat, represents.
A pound of top-grade coal, anthracite or premium bituminous coal, provides twice that much energy, up to 16,000 BTUs. This is why coal was considered valuable, because it delivered more energy per pound than wood.
Coal, even high-grade coal, emits almost twice the carbon per unit of energy as natural gas and 30 percent more than gasoline. Coal coke, refined from coal and used to make steel, is even worse. However, as with most other resources, humans “high graded” coal, taking the easy to extract, highest energy coal first. The best historic anthracite and bituminous coal is gone. The production of anthracite peaked in the UK in 1913, in the US in 1914, and in Germany in 1958. High-grade anthracite now represents about 1% of global coal reserves. Coal companies are left to scour the lower-grade dregs – the sub-bituminous and brown lignite – with deadly consequences.
Lignite contains no more energy-per-pound than peat, and sometimes less, down to 4,000 BTUs per pound. This means that for the same amount of energy received from high grade anthracite, lignite releases two-to-four-times the carbon into the atmosphere.
There is no such thing as “clean coal,” a promotional slogan with no relationship to physical reality.
In sickness and health
While heating Earth’s atmosphere and turning oceans acidic, coal kills humans.
In the unusually cold winter of 1952, London residents burned significantly more coal, and during an atmospheric inversion in December, a black smog covered London. A citizen fell over dead, every six minutes, 12,000 dead, over five days. Some 100,000 people sought treatment for respiratory ailments.
Today, the World Health Organization estimates that 1-million people die annually from coal-polluted air and water. Millions suffer from coal-induced pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma, and heart failure. US health authorities estimate that US workers loose 5 million work days each year from coal-related illness. Globally, those illnesses lead to hundreds of millions of lost days.
Coal miners have seen the worst of it. Black Lung disease, pneumoconiosis, slays thousands of miners every year, and leaves the living with lifetime lung ailments. Historically, and even now, coal mine workers suffer gas poisoning, explosions, mine collapses, suffocation, and equipment accidents. In the US, about one thousand coal miners die annually. China officially reports about 6,000 deaths annually, but unofficial estimates suggest thousands more, some 300 deaths per week, year-round.
Every species, habitat, ecosystem, river valley, and the atmosphere itself also suffer. Earth suffers. Coal burning industries release some 100-million tonnes of solid waste, annually, into Earth’s atmosphere and water, including fly ash, flue-gas, sludge, mercury, uranium, thorium, and arsenic. Imagine a hundred-million truckloads of toxic waste dumped into Earth’s ecosystems every year, 200 trucks per minute. Year-round.
Coal and Water
As global warming leaves Earth ecosystems dryer, coal mining and processing consume and pollute those diminishing water supplies. A World Resources Institute report warns that coal now threatens the world’s water resources.
During its full life cycle – mining, transport, use, and disposal – one tonne of coal will consume about 8,000 liters of water. The world produces 7.8 billion tonnes annually, requiring some 60 trillion liters, 22 million Olympic swimming pools, of water.
Meanwhile, coal plants, withdraw, divert, and pollute much more water than they consume. A typical coal plant, with a once-through cooling system, withdraws between 70 and 180 billion gallons of water annually. This process disrupts fish and amphibian nurseries and aquatic food webs.
When coal mines expose pyrite, which is common, the sulfur in pyrite reacts with oxygen and water to create sulfuric acid, turning lakes and rivers acidic, even long after a mine closes. In the 1980s, along the Myntdu River, on the India-Bangladesh border, scores of fishing villages abandoned historic livelihoods when fish could no longer survive in the acidic river. In the Pennsylvania coal fields, in the US, four thousand kilometers of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers are so acidic, they cannot support fish.
Mountaintop removal shoves rocks, millions of tons, into river valleys. In the US, the practice has buried over 3,000 kilometers of Appalachian streams, displaced communities, and obliterated watershed biodiversity.
Coal-fired power stations, especially in the age of low-grade brown lignite, disrupt downstream agriculture with both acid and the chemical opposite, alkaline run-off. Coal plants release mercury, which accumulates in fish, disrupts reproduction and growth, enters the human community, and causes neurological defects in infants and cardiovascular health problems for adults.
India appears to face the highest water risk, as some 70 % of coal-fired capacity in India is located in water stressed regions, with plans calling for more. Coal-related water-stress has impacted communities in China, US, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Egypt, and Pakistan.
Facing the Limits
Coal-power companies have proposed 1199 new coal-fired power plants in 59 countries, while actively dodging environmental laws. The Australian government led by Tony Abbott abolished the country’s climate laws before approving Australia’s largest coal mine. Eskom power company in South Africa has proposed exempting themselves from emission standards. A Greenpeace study found that pollution from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants already causes an estimated 2,200 premature deaths annually, at a social cost of some 30 billion rand, including costs to treat mercury’s neurotoxic effects on children.
Eskom’s proposed non-compliance would allow them to emit an additional 210 tonnes of mercury annually, 560,000 tonnes of particulates, 2.9 million tonnes of nitrogen-oxides, and 28 million tonnes of sulfur-dioxide, a plan that amounts to random murder of citizens.
Earth’s productive capacity has limits, and pushing those limits has consequences. The remaining low-grade coal reserves will deliver sickness, death, and ecological destruction. There are better ways to stay warm.
Environmental groups have articulated alternatives for decades: Conservation and renewable energy. This is not complicated. Earth has reached the genuine biophysical limits that ecologists have warned about since the 19th century. Digging after the dirty dregs of hydrocarbons amounts to civilization’s suicide. If common sense should prevail, we would close coal mines, build out renewable energy systems, and ditch the wasteful lifestyles that drive energy demand.
Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.
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