Cleaning up coal
Much is made of coal in the United States. In fact, much is made of coal across the world. The worldwide average of coal use per person per day amounts to 6.4 pounds, compared to an 18-pound average in the United States and a (shockingly) 33-pound average in Australia. And from this single resource, which produces 40 percent of global electric power, we see the contribution of 39 percent of global CO2 emissions.
As harsh as restrictions have become, and as harsh as upcoming legislation seems to lean, it’s hard to see America moving away from coal any time soon. The industry employs almost 100,000 Americans and huge veins of coal still exist, despite decades of intensive extraction. The natural next step, then, seems to be research into developing cleaner ways of dealing with one of the world’s dirtiest energy sources, a step that huge coal producers like the United States and China are both taking.
The basic principle behind clean coal is to create a process that simultaneously burns coal, produces electrical energy and recaptures the released CO2. This captured CO2 is then stored far below the earth’s surface, usually under lakes and layers of bedrock, where probability of escape back into the atmosphere is slim to none. In China, much of the domestic infrastructure is reliant upon electricity produced by coal. China has the worst case of coal pollution in the world, and it hosts companies like GreenGen that are working hard to improve upon systems that scrub ash and soot from coal-plant byproducts and capture and divert CO2. The United States too saw a brief flirtation with this Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology. American Electric Power (AEP) developed a prototype CCS system for their Mountaineer plant on the Ohio River, intended to capture and store 1.5% of their CO2.
Yet when climate change legislation failed to pass in the U.S. Senate, the project was dismantled. The development had been prompted by the threat of legislation regulating CO2 production, and with that threat removed, AEP saw no reason to push the cost of a CCS system onto customers.
Here I always wonder how our history of energy production would have played out if there had been an understanding and articulation of “air rights” in the same way there are mineral rights. Would massive conglomerates own the right to pollute in the same manner that they seemingly own the right to level mountaintops? But I digress.
The moral of the story is this: Without legislation there is no free-market incentive—and in fact, there are free-market decentives—for companies to invest in infrastructure like the one developed by AEP. Although AEP has since abandoned and dismantled their mechanisms for CCS, for a brief moment there was a glimpse of what clean coal might look like in the United States.
And to me, that’s disappointing. Amazing that the project received enough funding and for long enough that a power plant was able to capture and store 1.5% of its carbon produced. But still, disappointing. Yet, I think that in this discussion of cleaning up coal, some of the considerations that come prior to physically burning coal are lost. There are huge economic, environmental and public health implications associated with the extraction of coal that no amount of CCS could rectify.
Take the Appalachians. The regions that most often play host to vast coal deposits and the accompanying coal companies are comprised of predominantly rural communities with lower median household incomes than their urban counterparts. The average salary of a coalminer in Kentucky was $70,615 in 2012, while the median household income was $42,610. This economic impetus is often used to gloss over things like water polluted with heavy metals and flash floods that sweep through eroded mountaintop removal sites. Big Coal is able to cite God as the source of such natural disasters and move on, avoiding severe scrutiny.
It’s incredibly hard to look at something like coal production and send it away with a red seal of approval. I’ve heard coal advocates argue that mountaintop removal just allows for more sunlight to come down. I’ve heard coal advocates argue that there is no conclusive evidence that mining activity results in unsafe drinking water and higher cancer rates in regions of high extraction. But for all of the shady justifications and all of the shelter found behind loose arguments of correlation and causation, it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to the public health impact and the destruction of local ecology. It may well be that we reach a point where burning coal produces carbon-neutral energy, but that’s far from the only provision for coal to be “clean”.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity junior. This is her final column of the semester. Send Lydia a message on Twitter @ThurmanLydia