Sunday, December 30, 2007

Clean Coal. Which Part of the Story is Dirt Free?

Kenneth Boulding (past president of the American Economic Association) once remarked, "only madmen and economists believe in perpetual exponential growth."

A few mornings ago The Cosmopolitan Charlestonian was victimized by shock and awe as CNBCs Joe Kernen on Squawk Box said something along the lines of, [so in the big picture] “…we’re running out of oil. Well, how stupid are we? If we had known about this three years ago we could have begun planning for it.” Joe was referring to peak oil, which is why we were standing together in the bedroom with our mouths agape in shock when we heard the statement. Typically the news jockeys and talking heads steer clear of anything that even remotely smells of peak oil and with exceptional organization, they rarely allow the term to escape their lips. In fact, as keen observers, we’ve been hearing some pretty creative terminology borne of the latest media-led confusion campaign. Like for instance, this one. We’ve now reached maximum efficient extraction capacity. This chatter will glaze over the eyes of any laymen, therefore, commencing the confusion campaign. We should also point out to Joe (who is more often the rogue character with deadpan observations and coy cynical wit) that Americans did know about this little problem three years ago. In fact, we’ve known about oil and energy shortages for ages. Remember those shocks in the 70’s, Joe? Lots of us have been talking about preparing for peak oil while the people on your show yawned, shrugged off great minds as alarmist and went on discussing unlimited growth. Growth! Growth! Stock Market to 21,000!

Peak oil being the segue for alternative energies, the Marketeers at Squawk moved on to the pursuit and peddling of “clean coal.” LOL – clean? The Honorary Southern Belle here in The Cosmopolitan Charlestonian camp is a transplant from Pennsylvania. That’s Coal Country people and the evidence is there. Here in beautiful Charleston we are far removed from the sights and sounds of industrial coal mining operations. Despite coal plants powering some areas of this state, the broader realities of coal use have not sunken into our collective consciousness. Because we don’t see it, mind the particulate matter that fills our air and pollutes our waterways as a direct link, we give it nary a thought. Unfortunately, the true cost and true effect is most certainly invading our daily lives with exorbitant intangible expense.

Looking back at life in coal country, the unrealized costs of the extraction of the coal resource were plain to see. Strip-mined areas were dead and barren, the land hacked and sawed into where the coal was taken. Abandon quarries and mine shafts took the lives of curious children and daring teenagers where drowning and collapse occurred. People often spoke of hidden costs, hidden company agendas and invisible toxins degrading air quality to the inevitable ailment of all society. There were always clear economic and environmental situations. Take for instance, Centralia, Pennsylvania. It’s been on fire since the 60’s underground. The town is dead from the inside out. Take a look. Is this clean coal?

Yes, we have discussed sequestration and scrubbing methods, etc. and agree that these new methods are cleaner; however, the truth of the matter simply is - there is no clean coal. When we talk about sequestering CO2 we are only talking about the portion of the process related to what comes out after we’ve converted the resource to energy. We’re not looking at the whole picture in this case which is exactly how coal and energy companies would like it to remain. What of the extraction, the processing, the shipping and overall messiness of this dusty resource? In our previous post, Curing Charlotte’s Addiction, you may have already found, especially if you are someone who has suffered at any time from asthma, or know someone that does, that coal is not so much our friend after all.

Coal may be viewed as one of life’s ultimate ironies as peak oil tempts us to tap the earth for additional resources. Our coal reserves in the states may be as vast as the great seas, yet can an ocean quench a man’s thirst? Or should we be left much like the Mariner lamenting, “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

We have coal in great abundance. It is all around us. But should we go ahead and fire it up?

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