Canary in a Coalmine
The latest United Nations Human Development Report categorically mentions that climate change may reverse human development in the 21st century. But, two of the largest emitters of CO2 – US and Australia – are not even part of the Kyoto Protocol. US, instead, is focussing on two so-called “advanced” coal technologies to substitute petroleum use. JASON FULTS explains how this new source will have grave implications for the entire planet. But more critically, for the local people.
Coal currently supplies more than half of the US's electricity. Its consumption increased by about 11 per cent between 1996 and 2006. And the Energy Information Administration estimates that 139giga-watts of new coalbased generating capacity will be added to the country's energy grids by 2030. But who would bear the brunt of this development? The mining communities.
One community that has been severely affected by coal consumption is Appalachia. The region, which includes parts of 13 US states, has some of the richest coal seams in the world. Its mountainous terrain has helped to develop and preserve a culture in relative isolation. However, with the tapping of coal deposits in the 19th century, the region attracted a wave of immigrants. Today, over 20 million people live here, and the region is undergoing rapid economic, cultural, and demographic changes.
Memorial for the mountains www.ilovemountains.org/memorial/ A virtual memorial that uses Google Earth to tell the stories of coalfield residents, and more than 470 mountains destroyed by mountaintopremoval through photos, stories, and interviews.
One of the most destructive forms of coal mining practiced in Appalachia is surface or strip mining, locally known as mountaintop removal. Heavy machinery and high-powered explosives remove the part of the mountain that covers the coal seam, and dump the resulting waste into nearby valleys and streams. This proves as a labour and money-saving method of mining for the coal companies. The consequences are none of their business.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organisation, mountaintop removal has ‘buried or polluted more than 1,200 miles (1900 kilometers) of streams, destroyed more than seven per cent of Appalachia’s forests, and eliminated entire communities. If current trends continue over the next decade, affected land will cover 2,200 square miles (nearly 5,700 square kilometers)’.
One of the most destructive forms of coal mining is surface or strip mining.
The region has supplied coal to the US (one-third of coal consumption per year) and other nations for generations, too often at great ecological and social costs. As Teri Blanton, a native of Appalachia and anti-mining activist says, “My home county, Harlan (a coal mining county in Appalachian eastern Kentucky), has produced over 1 billion tonnes of coal in the past century. Yet… coal has left us with polluted water, a corrupted political system, poor schools, too many unhealthy people, and a disappearing heritage. And today the destruction is increasing”. Coal companies pay off local politicians to do their bidding and seduce citizens with false promises of jobs and wealth, alleges Blanton. Another resident of the coalfields says, “Coal has been dominant in Appalachian economies for a hundred years now and they are still some of the poorest counties in the US”.
“For years, coal miners would take canaries into the mines to warn of dangerous gases. When the canaries died, the miners knew it was time to get out of the mine. Now, we are the canaries, warning everyone about the dangers of coal before it is too late.”
As these new oil techniques are explored, Appalachia is at a huge risk. Given that the most accessible coal seams have been mined, the rise in coal consumption would surely doom its future. But the residents of these ‘sacrifice zones’ have now started protesting against increased mining. One group is Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), which has founded a statewide Canary Project, with the aim of freeing their communities from the domination of the coal industry.
A member says, “For years, coal miners would take canaries into the mines to warn of dangerous gases. When the canaries died, the miners knew it was time to get out of the mine. Now, we are the canaries, warning everyone about the dangers of coal before it is too late. We no longer believe the big lie that coal is a cheap source of energy, and we are no longer willing to have our homes and lives sacrificed for coal company profits.” Appalachians, declares the group, have joined forces with other environmentalists in calling for environmental justice and a clean energy future for the US and the planet, against those who enjoy wasteful lifestyles and outsource the consequences.
A new generation of the US power plants, with two already on-line and a few dozen more proposed as of 2007, will utilise coal gassification process – known as Integrated Gassification Combined-Cycle (IGCC).
The Process is the same as that used for other carbonbased 'feedstock', such as biomass and waste materials:
Coal is subjected to controlled chemical processes under high temperature and pressure, forming a gaseous mixture
The mixture consists of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and other compounds that can be used for fuel or other commercial products
Higher levels of efficiency
Better reduction or capture of pollutants
Higher capital costs of IGCC plants
Need for government subsidies
Increased wastewater and mercury pollution
The Process Coal is first gasified in the process described:
The gaseous mixture is converted into a number of liquids using a chemical process known as Fischer- Tropsch (FT)
The mixture consists of ammonia, naphtha (petroleum ether), methanol, and diesel that can be used for fuel
US can reduce its current import of more than 10,000,000 barrels of oil per day
Only 1-2 barrels of oil output per tonne of coal
More mining, more pollution
CO2 release nearly twice that of the petroleum refining process
High capital investments