Battlefront Coal.

china coalAdmittedly, it’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions about the rapidly evolving and massively complex war being waged to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But it does seem that while the war is being waged on a number of fronts–everything from conservation and energy efficiency to renewable sources of electrical production and transportation fuels to reforestation efforts–a major focal point is coal.

By way of example, let’s talk about Google.org. Google.org is focusing its considerable energies and resources on finding a cheaper alternative to coal. Now, the “true” cost of coal isn’t as simple as stating the market cost of each kilowatt hour of energy, considering the massive subsidies the coal industry receives and the equally massive societal costs of coal in terms of pollution and health impacts. But Google.org is right to emphasize the need to find an alternative that is cheaper, not just less environmentally harmful, than coal in order to counter the very powerful influence of those with significant financial interests in it.

While application of renewable energy sources cheaper than coal would be a major boon here in the U.S. where about 36% of our energy comes from the stuff, Google.org and many others are deeply concerned about the use of coal in the developing world. Though per capita levels in the developed world still far surpass those of developing countries, we carbon gluttons have largely stabilized our emissions, whereas China, India and other countries are growing like crazy. And China is both the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world: 70% of China’s energy comes from coal. So, couple a rapidly growing economy with exceedingly poor environmental practices and a huge reliance on the most carbon intensive fossil fuel and you get a bleak, bleak picture of the future.

It also makes sense for Google.org because the organization has three primary focuses: climate change, poverty and health. The huge reliance on coal, particularly in the developing world, impacts all three of these areas. It’s no coincidence that 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China. Each year, 400,000 Chinese die prematurely and 75 million suffer asthma attacks. And all that pollution transcends borders. I wrote here about the enormous clouds of dust and pollution carried on winds from Asia to fill our California skies.

BTW, if you’re interested in learning more about Google.org’s focus and challenges, you can watch this interview by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Google.org’s Executive Director, Larry Brilliant.

But there’s more to this story than just the relatively cheap cost of coal or the fact that it’s the most carbon polluting of all fossil fuels. The other part of the equation has to do with proven reserves. This graph tells you everything you need to know:

fossil fuel reserves

The fact is, however controversial or debatable the anticipated date, the peak of oil is coming (some say it already passed). I’m not going to get into the whole peak oil discussion here, though the topic well warrants the attention. But one thing is clear: There’s enough coal in the ground to doom us even if we didn’t touch one more drop of oil or natural gas. And the largest known reserves also happen to be in countries that have the highest greenhouse gas emissions.

  • The United States: First in total greenhouse gas emissions; first in coal reserves.
  • China: Second in emissions; third in coal reserves.
  • Russia: Third in emissions; second in coal reserves.
  • India: Fourth in emissions; fourth in coal reserves.

Always glad to see that we’re still #1, huh? Which gets me to this point of summary:

  • Coal is has the highest carbon intensity and worst health and environmental impacts of all the fossil fuels.
  • It also happens to be the one fossil fuel we won’t be running out of any time soon.
  • Two thirds of all that remaining coal sits in the four greatest greenhouse gas producing countries in the world.

So it’s imperative that we either find a cost-effective renewable alternative that will keep all that coal in the ground and/or we find a way to clean up coal. That’s where the whole idea of carbon capture and sequestration comes in. People disagree over whether or not CCS is feasible or practical, but there are many who believe it’s necessary to invest in the technology because they understand the picture I painted above.

So that’s why some of the news that came out this week related to coal is so disappointing. The U.S. Department of Energy has pulled its support of FutureGen, a joint public/private initiative (which included the Chinese government) to develop a coal to gas CCS plant in Illinois. The DOE was footing 75% of the bill so this signals the end to a hugely important demonstration project.

This comes on top of a telling battle in Kansas, which I wrote about last week, where state lawmakers are pushing forward a bill that would approve a $3.5 billion expansion of a coal plant and strip the state’s top environmental official of being able to regulate greenhouse gases beyond federal levels (of course, the federal government isn’t regulating a damn thing right now). The bill, for which proponents are hoping to get a veto-proof majority in the State House of Representatives, is notably absent of the largely symbolic $3/ton carbon tax that had been originally included in order to placate environmentalists.

Not a pretty picture…

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