Posts Tagged ‘Coal’

The passing scene – August 26, 2015

August 26, 2015

Coal Dethroned by Laura Gottesdiener for TomDispatch.

In Appalachia, the coal industry is in collapse, but the mountains aren’t coming back.

Donald Trump – Man of War by David Cay Johnston for the National Memo.  (Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow)

21 Questions for Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston for the National Memo.

Donald Trump’s history includes business ties with known Mafia figures and employment of illegal immigrants from Poland.

The Secret History of Jaywalking: The Disturbing Reason It Was Outlawed – And Why We Should Lift the Ban by Ravi Mangla on AlterNet.

Should Prison Sentences Be Based on Crimes That Haven’t Been Committed Yet? by Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Ben Casselman and Dana Goldstein for FiveThirtyEight.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism)

President Obama’s modest Clean Power Plan

August 5, 2015

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is a step in the right direction, which he advocates with his usual eloquence and which is blindly opposed by most of the Republican leaders.  Sadly it is insufficient to significantly mitigate global warming.

Source: Mother Jones

Source: Mother Jones

The plan is intended to reduce the burning of coal in electric power plants.  This is a good thing because, of all the possible sources of energy, coal is the most destructive to the environment, to the health and safety of workers and to public health, and is the worst contributor to greenhouse gasses.

Even so, under the plan, the United States would still be burning a lot of coal by 2030.  The chart at right is by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, and it shows that the reduction of power plant emissions from 2005 to 2030 will be less than half.

The plan is intended to reduceincrease the use of renewable energy, which is a good thing.  Sadly it also is based on an energy strategy of fracking for natural gas and of Arctic and other ocean drilling for oil.  This is in the context of a national economic strategy based on exporting raw materials rather than reviving manufacturing.

Obama’s plan is intended to increase energy efficiency, which is a good thing.  The drawback is that making energy use more efficient makes it cheaper, and making it cheaper encourages people to use more.

The goals of the plan are to be achieved after Obama leaves office, so its success depends on whether his successors carry through with it.

I hate to think that Obama’s plan is the best that is economically and politically feasible, but maybe it is.  Too bad for future generations that we couldn’t do more.


Here’s a 2-Minute Video Explaining Obama’s New Plan to Fight Global Warming by Tim McDonnell for Mother Jones.

Why Obama’s epic climate change plan isn’t such a big deal by Michael Grunwald for Politico.

Hidden in Obama’s new climate plan, a whack at red states by Michael Grunwald for Politico.

Obama climate change plan: The clean power plan is supposed to be bold, but it isn’t by Eric Holthaus for Slate.

The Last Defining Court Battle of Obama’s Presidency by Rebecca Leber for The New Republic.   The whole thing could be overturned by Chief Justice Roberts’ Supreme Court.

Peak coal? Or just a temporary coal glut?

February 23, 2015

My e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a link to an article reporting that Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal company, is losing money, and some smaller U.S. coal companies have already gone bankrupt.

Does this mean we’ve reached peak coal?  Have American companies already mined all the coal that can be extracted profitably?  Profitably, even taking into consideration all the costs in human health, environmental destruction and climate change that they offload onto the public?  Maybe.

There’s another trend at work, and that is a glut in the world supply of coal, which is driving the price down.  This is part of a normal economic cycle.  A glut causes a drop in prices, which causes business failures, which causes scarcity, which causes a rise in prices, which causes another boom, which causes another glut, and so on.

But as we use up all the easy-to-get coal, easy-to-get oil and easy-to-get natural gas, and the remaining gas becomes more expensive to extract, the cycles of boom and bust will be shallower and shorter.

The question is how much buyers of coal should count on a good supply at a reasonable price in the long run.

Electric utilities typically make take-or-pay contracts, which obligate them to buy certain amounts of energy from certain suppliers at a certain price over a long period of time.

I don’t think there’s anything improper about take-or-pay contracts in and of themselves.  A supplier isn’t going to make a long-term investment unless there’s assurance of a market.  But the buyer needs to do a lot of hard thinking about the future.

I think that, as a matter of national policy, coal companies and other energy companies should be made to absorb the costs of the harm they do to human health and the human environment.  If that increases the cost of energy—well, the cost was always being paid, just not by them.

As a matter of national policy, it is best to leave as much coal and other fossil fuels in the ground as possible.  Ideally we the people will find good substitutes.  But if there comes a time when they are desperately needed, these resources will be there for us.


The case against coal

November 10, 2014


The Funny Math in the GOP’s Energy Agenda by Colin Chilcoat for OilPrice (via Naked Capitalism)

Can Coal Ever Be Clean? by Michelle Nijhuis for National Geographic.

Digging up our coal, oil and gas for export

March 22, 2014


I don’t think many Americans are aware of how much of our coal, oil and natural gas production is for export.  In particular, I don’t think Americans are as aware as we should be that the pipeline to carry bitumen from tar sands fields in Alberta to oil refineries in Texas is for the benefit of Canadian exporters, not (except very indirectly) American consumers.  The tar sands production is being piped south to Texas because other Canadian provinces are unwilling to take the environmental risk of having it piped east or west.

In and of itself, anything that reduces the U.S. trade deficit is a good thing, not a bad thing.  We need to import things from abroad, and we need to pay for them with exports.  Now we pay a price for this, which we did not have to pay for oil exports from Texas in the 1950s.

The easy-to-get coal, oil and natural gas has been pretty much used up, and so we need hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, mountaintop removal to dig for coal, deep water drilling for oil and the Alberta tar sands to get at what fossil fuels are left.

All these methods involve risks to human health and the natural environment, but that’s a price that can’t be avoided until alternatives are found and energy consumption is reduced.

An advanced nation should not depend on exports of raw materials, and imports of high-tech manufacturing goods, but that is the U.S. situation today.

As the old saying goes, you can’t have your cake, and eat it too.

A nation can’t have reserves of fossil fuels, and burn them up or sell them all for export, too.

Hat tip to Bill Elwell for the cartoon.

The energy scene: Notes & links 11/7/13

November 7, 2013

Mr. Buffett’s Coal Train by Rick Bass for the Washington Spectator.

The Tongue River Railroad, which is partly owned by financier Warren Buffett, wants to lay track to carry sub-bituminous coal from Otter Creek in southwest Montana to existing railroads and then to ports in the Pacific Northwest for shipment to China.   The company would be allowed to take the property of ranchers in the area by eminent domain.   This coal is so dirty that burning it is illegal in the United States, but people in communities along the rail lines would have to breath the black dust from open coal cars.

U.S. lays out strict limits on coal funding abroad by Reuters.

Historically the mining and burning of coal is a greater hazard to human life and health than any other known energy source. It would be a good idea to find substitutes even if it were not a contributor to global warming. The United States government has announced that it will not contribute to World Bank funding of coal plants except in extremely poor nations that have no alternative energy sources, or for plants that use coal capture and sequestration to limit pollution, a technology that is not commercially viable. But evidently this concern is not shared by Warren Buffett or by Chinese electric power utilities.

Prominent Climate Scientists Go Nuclear by Desi Doyen for the Brad Blog.

James Hansen and three other prominent climate scientists say that threat of global warming due to burning of fossil fuels is so great and so imminent that nuclear generation of electricity is preferable.  In spite of the Fukushima disaster, I would be in favor of building a new generation of nuclear power plants, using up-to-date technology (maybe the French could supply them).  What I’m not in favor of is continuing to operate existing U.S. nuclear power plants past their scheduled decommissioning dates.

Urbee 2: The 3D-Printed Car That Will Drive Across the County by Popular Mechanics.  Hat tip to Don Montana.

Google cars vs. public transit: the U.S. problem with public goods by Ethan Zuckerman.  Hat tip to Tobias Buckell.

American inventors are coming up with the kind of stuff I read about in science fiction stories 50 years ago.  Why, then, do we Americans have such a hard time accomplishing mundane things, such as clean, efficient, convenient and reliable bus and train service?

Unfortunately we need coal for now

January 6, 2011

Of all possible sources of energy, the burning of coal is the very worst – worst in terms of human life and health, worst in terms of the natural environment, worst in terms of its contribution to global warming.  Yet we may not be able to get along without it.

The danger and unhealthiness of coal mining has been lessened, here in the United States, by increased surface mining, which makes fatal accidents and respiratory diseases such as black lung less common.  U.S. coal miners nowadays have almost as great a life expectancy as the average U.S. citizen.  Yet surface mining disfigures the land permanently.  This is not just a matter of not looking nice.  Surface mining ruins land for any other purpose.  It increases the danger of flooding, which washes rubble, including sometimes-toxic pollution from mine tailings, onto neighboring  land.

Air pollution, including acid rain, from coal mining has greatly diminished in the United States.  About half the cost of a coal-fired power plant is in air pollution equipment.  But coal generates more greenhouse gasses than any other fossil fuel.

All decision-makers know this.  Yet this does not diminish reliance on coal. In the United States from 1995 to 2008, the increase in the amount of electricity generated from burning coal was 5.8 times as great as from wind and 823 times as great as from solar.  China is a world leader in making solar panels and other green technology equipment, but China gets only 1 percent of its own power from solar.

Renewable, sustainable energy is the kind of energy we want.  Coal and nuclear power are the only kind of energy we’ve got.  It may be decades before the green technologies are available in commercial quantities at affordable prices.  It may be never.  The other technologies – call them brown technologies – are available right now.

The world may have reached its peak in oil production.  In contrast peak coal at present rates of use (the qualifier is important) is centuries away.  Coal is not a source of energy that we have to import, or that foreign countries can embargo.  The United States, together with China, Russia and India, contains the bulk of the world’s coal reserves.  The United States is a coal exporter.

There’s still one big drawback.  Dependence on coal, with present technologies, will burn up the planet.  Coal generates more greenhouse gasses than any other form of fossil fuel.  James Fallows discussed this in an excellent article in the December 2010 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.   Click on Dirty Coal, Clean Future to read Fallows’ Atlantic article.  He describes joint U.S.-Chinese research efforts on technologies for burning coal cleanly, and he says these technologies are our only hope.  American scientific brilliance and the Chinese ability to get things done are an ideal combination, Fallows writes (I can remember when we Americans were noted for our ability to get things done).

David G. Victor and Richard K. Morse, writing in the September-October issue of Boston Review, focus on the difficulties and expense of making this technology commercially viable.  Click on Living With Coal to read their article.  Their best estimate is that there will be at most a dozen commercial-scale clean coal plants in 2020 and “with luck and diligence” clean coal will be 3 to 5 percent of energy from coal by 2030. Even so, they expect clean coal to still be cheaper than renewable energy for electricity generation.

I accept the need for coal in the near future to keep industrial civilization operating, I accept the reality of global climate change due to greenhouse gasses, so the need for affordable clean-burning coal is inescapable.  My concern is whether clean coal research and development is a serious effort, like the U.S. development of the nuclear energy industry, or whether it is something to appease the Greens while coal forges ahead.  The test will be whether the U.S. Congress and other countries’ legislatures enact a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system to force the development of clean coal.

Coal is something we have; clean coal is something we may or may have have someday.  I remember all the promises of how, when surface coal mining first began, the surface would be reseeded and renewed better than before.  As it turned out, this was not seriously intended.  It was just a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.