Our Black Future
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
NOT long ago, I stood at the bottom of a strip mine in Wyoming and looked up at a 70-foot-high seam of coal. It had a brownish cast and crumbled when I touched it. I could see bits of woody fiber, the remains of a huge swamp that existed there 50 million years ago. I imagined this great coal seam rolling under the prairie for hundreds of miles. "We're the OPEC of coal," the head of a coal industry trade group told me later.
Now that the need for greater energy independence has become a universal political slogan, every county commissioner in America has an idea of how we can break free of our Middle Eastern oil shackles: ethanol, hydrogen, solar panels on the roof of every Hummer! Still, it's hard not to be optimistic when you're standing in front of a 70-foot seam of coal. It's not hype; it's real. Is the bridge to energy independence paved in black?
During World War II, the Nazis, who were desperate to find a way to power their tanks with coal, pursued technology to transform coal into liquid fuels. In South Africa today, one energy company, Sasol, produces about 150,000 barrels a day of diesel from coal.
We could do far better in the United States. According to a recent report by the National Coal Council, an advisory board to the Department of Energy that is dominated by coal executives, if America invested $211 billion in coal-to-liquids refineries over the next 20 years, we could make 2.6 million barrels of diesel per day, enhancing the American oil supply by 10 percent. A number of coal-to-liquids plants are on the drawing boards in the United States, and China is eagerly pursuing this technology too.
Put aside the question of whether raising fuel efficiency standards for vehicles could achieve the same goal at far less cost. Instead, let's consider the wisdom of substituting one fossil fuel for another. We already burn a billion tons of coal a year — it generates more than half the electricity in the United States. But thanks in part to ever bigger, more powerful equipment, mining is destroying vast swaths of Appalachia while providing fewer well-paying jobs.
From 1984 to 2004, the average coal miner's per-shift productivity more than doubled, while wages declined by 20 percent (adjusted for inflation). If we simply increase consumption, we will be condemning large areas of the country, including eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, to national sacrifice zones. In addition, coal-to-liquids plants consume enormous quantities of water — three barrels, on average, for every barrel of fuel produced. In many places, especially the coal-rich but water-poor Western prairies, this is not a good deal.
Then there's global warming. To avoid dangerous climate change, many scientists argue that we must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent to 70 percent by 2050. Coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, is responsible for nearly 40 percent of American emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Since 1990, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel power plants have increased by 27 percent, compared to 19 percent from all sources nationally. Coal-to-liquids plants will only accelerate this trend. Depending on the technology used, refining coal can release 50 percent to 100 percent more carbon dioxide than refining petroleum.
In theory, carbon dioxide can be captured and sequestered underground in tapped-out oil fields or deep saline aquifers. But this method will work only in regions where the geology is suitable, and even there, good sequestration space is limited. Moreover, injecting carbon dioxide underground can set off earthquakes. And the gas is an asphyxiant: we risk deadly accidents should the millions of tons we would need to bury escape their underground prisons. In 1986, at Lake Nyos in Cameroon, 300,000 tons of naturally occurring carbon dioxide that had been trapped in the lake suddenly rose to the surface and formed a misty cloud, suffocating 1,700 people.
Coal-to-liquids plants might make sense for generating back-up fuel for the military. And there are certainly ways coal can play a role in reducing the demand for oil without destroying the climate. Instead of building coal-to-liquids plants, it would be smarter to push for the development of plug-in hybrid cars, which have larger batteries than conventional hybrids, allowing them to replace gasoline with grid-generated electricity and to emit 65 percent less carbon dioxide than conventional cars. But coal boosters are less interested in promoting this path, in part because it would undercut the industry's goal of becoming "the OPEC of coal." The very phrase suggests the industry's monopolistic impulses.
The biggest problem with our bounty of coal is not what it does to our mountains or the atmosphere, but what it does to our minds. It preserves the illusion that we don't have to change our lives. Given the profound challenges we face with the end of cheap oil and the arrival of global warming, this is a dangerous fantasy.
If we had less coal, we might replace the 19th-century notion that we can drill and burn our way to prosperity with a more modern view of efficiency and sustainability. Instead of spending billions of dollars each year to subsidize tapping out yet another finite resource, we'd pour that money into solar energy, biofuels and other renewable resources.
We'd be creating jobs in new industries, not protecting them in old ones. And we'd understand that the real fuel of the future is not coal but creativity.
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