The Coal Conundrum

A long article in the October 16th Washington Post, ‘U.S. exports emissions – as coal’ by Joby Warrick, points out the conundrum posed by the U.S.’s abundant coal resources. These coal reserves provide a relatively low cost energy resource that can be burned to produce steam and electricity and improve human welfare in both the U.S. and other countries. However, its combustion produces large amounts of carbon dioxide that when added to the atmosphere causes global warming and associated global climate change. The conundrum arises from a clear conflict of values – the need to provide energy services to people around the world, in particular people in developing countries whose per capita consumption of electricity is well below that of developed countries, and the need to address climate change with its many adverse consequences, identified by many as the most serious problem facing the globe. No easy answer exists to satisfy those on both sides of this conundrum.

Several statements in Warrick’s well-researched article captured my attention, including: “Just a dozen nearby mines, scattered across a valley known as the Powder River Basin (Wyoming), contain enough coal to meet the country’s electricity needs for decades. But burning all of it would release more than 450 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – more than all greenhouse-gas emissions from all sources since 2000.” and “The Obama Administration is seeking to curb the United States’ appetite for the basin’s coal, which scientists say must remain mostly in the ground to prevent a disastrous warming of the planet. Yet each year, nearly half a billion tons of this U.S.-owned fuel are hauled from the region’s vast strip mines and millions of tons are shipped overseas for other countries to burn.”

Given the legitimate needs on both sides of this conundrum I can see only one path to follow to bring the benefits of electricity to as many people as possible while minimizing the risks associated with burning coal. This is to promote the use of energy efficiency technologies wherever feasible, to reduce the demand for coal-based electricity, and expedite the development and deployment of renewable electric technologies such as solar and wind as substitutes for coal. This is already happening to some extent as the world slowly begins to come to grips with the climate change problem, but the pace needs to and can be accelerated. The ability of renewables to meet most of the world’s electricity needs has been documented in several recent studies, e.g., the June 2012 NREL report entitled ‘Renewable Electricity Futures Study’, and what is now needed is a commitment on the part of national governments and international institutions to make it happen as quickly as possible. It is a matter not of technology but of political will and financial resources. Admittedly, such a switch from coal and other fossil fuels (natural gas, oil) that also produce carbon dioxide when combusted, to a renewables-based energy economy, will take time, lots af planning, and lots of money. However, when the full costs of using fossil fuels are taken into consideration, including not just market costs but also health and climate change-related costs (such as coastline flooding due to rising seas, changed precipition patterns that adversely impact water availability and agricultural production), and international tensions due to competition for fossil fuel resources, renewables become a much more attractive and even less expensive long-term option. Renewable resources are also insensitive to cost increases once initial capital investments are made, unlike fossil fuels that rely on a depletable resource that produces uncertain and often volatile costs.

Nuclear power advocates will make some of the same arguments since the process of releasing energy via nuclear fission does not produce greenhouse gases, but nuclear technology faces four serious problems: high cost, safety, the need for long-term radioactive waste storage, and proliferation of weapons capability. If these problems can be successfully addressed, then nuclear-powered electricity can be a viable option for the future. Nuclear power also offers the tantalizing option of nuclear fusion, a relatively safer and cleaner nuclear technology with enormous resource potential, but the problem of achieving controlled nuclear fusion on earth (it is the process that powers our sun) is proving to be the most difficult technological challenge the world has faced to date. It can legitimately be labeled ‘the technology that is always a few years away.’

In sum, the choice is ours – we can continue to use our coal resources without limit or we can move more quickly to a clean energy society that provides needed energy services and minimizes global warming and climate change effects. I vote for the latter.

Larry Ott

The second part of this conundrum is how do we take care of the thousands of our citizens in some of our poorest states who are dependent upon the coal industry for their livelihood. Federal, state and local governments including the U.S. Congress and state assemblies will need to step up to the plate to provide the funds and the political will to adequately compensate and retrain this segment of our society.