Coal: America’s Dirty Little Secret

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If any country in the Middle East can be called the oil king, the United States can easily take the title for the coal queen.  The only country that produces more hard coal (as opposed to brown coal) at the moment is China, which is also the world’s largest consumer of coal and the second largest importer of coal. (facts from the World Coal Institute at http://www.worldcoal.org/resources/coal-statistics/ ) The largest coal reserves by far are in the US, followed by Russia (fact found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal)

The fact is that coal in the US is still used because it’s right here, easy to use and the mechanisms for that use are already in place, such as for coal fired electric plants, with new ones being built all the time.  Over half of the electricity produced in the US is from coal (figure found at http://www.teachcoal.org/aboutcoal/articles/coalconvert.html).  In addition to being the second largest producer of hard coal, the US is also the second largest consumer using over a billion tons each year.  (fact taken from http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/ene_coa_con-energy-coal-consumption).

Think about that number for a moment.  Over a billion tons burnt up each year, every year. 

The efforts to include clean burning technologies into coal plants have been moderately successful, reducing the emissions that cause acid rain and other pollution in the atmosphere.  This technology is expensive to implement and have been resisted by many in the industry and still leaves the problem of how to dispose of the ‘captured’ carbon, issues that are still being addressed by the industry and local and federal governments.   The general notion about what to do with that waste has been to store it underground, or sequester it in a liquid state, rather than find a way to re-incorporate it into the environment.  (read more about that at  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clean_coal_technology)  The fact is that coal produces nine billion tons of carbon dioxide each year (from http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf83.html).  That is another almost inconceivable number. 

Not only is gaseous waste produced, but ash and heavy metals like mercury are also produces and waste leaks or accidents can be devastating to the environment and the human population.  A recent leak in Kingston Tennessee cause millions of dollars of damage, made homes and water ways unlivable and will take years to clean up, if it is ever fully restored (for more information on the leak and the damage and clean up see http://www.teachcoal.org/aboutcoal/articles/coalconvert.html).

The plain fact is that the United States is on an unsustainable path with coal.  We have reserves that may last, at current consumption 140-150 years, but those are just popular estimates.  Little concrete effort is being put into replacing coal for electricity, and in fact new plants are still being built, even in my wind rich state of Kansas. 

President Obama and much of our government talk about clean energy as if it is already in the works, as if the plan is set before us simply waiting to be implemented step by step.  In fact, there is no plan.  Various states and local governments are doing a better job than the federal government.  Again and again clean energy bills are blocked or simply ignored by the U.S. congress, and again and again each sides points fingers at the other as to why this is.  The most we have gotten on energy legislation in the U.S. is on again/off again off-shore drilling which is another problem all together. 

It is continually astonishing to me that with our economic crisis and unemployment in the U.S that more is not done in this potentially job rich field.  The talk is there, but not the walk.  Coal.  It always comes back to coal. 

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