The Amy H Remley Foundation  

Coal and Natural Gas

Coal or Natural Gas.

The United States has vast resources of cheap coal for electricity generation. Coal is renowned as the most pollutant source of energy. "Clean coal" is a current buzzword - easy to utter but more difficult to achieve practically. Efforts in pursuit of Clean Coal involve pre-processing to a gaseous form, and capture of the carbon dioxide during the generation process and storing it deep underground to prevent it from polluting the atmosphere as GHG. Both options are expensive in dollar and energy terms and of questionable efficiency. Click to view the fact sheet on "Clean Coal" Power Plants (IGCC) .


The following is taken from: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #984, Nov. 6, 2008

By Peter Montague

As we search for solutions to global warming and toxic contamination, we can compare technologies, intending to select the least harmful. In recent years, scientists have developed two sets of criteria that we can use to judge the "greenness" of competing technologies. The first is called "The 12 principles of green engineering" and the second is "The 12 principles of green chemistry."

Both sets of principles were developed by teams of technical experts and published in peer-reviewed journals. They are now widely understood and endorsed. Most importantly, they offer ordinary people, as well as experts, a way to decide which technologies are worth supporting and which ones should be phased out or never developed at all.

You can find both sets of principles listed on the "Green Principles" page.

Is Coal Green?

Don't laugh. There are major environmental groups who have received major grants to convince the public that "clean coal" is just around the corner and that we should be investing many billions of dollars each year in "clean coal." These groups include the Union of Concerned Scientists [2 Mbyte PDF], the Clean Air Task Force, and the Natural Resources Defense Council [1 Mbyte PDF].

There are roughly 500 coal-fired power plants in the U.S., burning a total of about 1.05 billion tons of coal each year to produce half the nation's electricity. These plants emit 1.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year, which is 1/3 of the nation's annual total CO2 emissions. Most proposals for "clean coal" focus narrowly on this CO2 problem, intending to capture CO2 and bury it in the deep earth, thus converting it from our problem to our children's problem.

The "other" wastes from burning coal

In addition to 1.9 billion tons of CO2 released by coal-burning power plants each year, another 120 million tons of toxic wastes are created (so-called coal ash, or coal combustion waste [ccw]). These 120 million tons of waste, produced annually, will remain toxic forever, and they have to be put somewhere.

"Clean coal" advocates tend to give lip service to this other 120 million tons of toxic waste. Their preferred solution for these toxic wastes is to capture them and bury them in shallow pits in the ground called landfills or "surface impoundments." Unfortunately, all landfills and surface impoundments eventually release their contents into the local environment, so storing coal wastes in landfills and surface impoundments is just another way of passing these problems along to our children. [See "EPA says all landfills leak, even those using best available liners," Rachel's News #37 (August 10, 1987).]

How toxic is this toxic waste? The 1.05 billion tons of coal we burn each year contain 109 tons of mercury, 7884 tons of arsenic, 1167 tons of beryllium, 750 tons of cadmium, 8810 tons of chromium, 9339 tons of nickel, and 2587 tons of selenium. These are tremendous quantities of toxic materials and they are produced each year, year after year. Where do these toxic materials go?

As coal is prepared for burning it is crushed and washed. The coal wash water is "disposed" of at the mine site, meaning it is dumped into a large bathtub in the ground. Of course sooner or later it leaks out the bottom of the bathtub, carrying with it each year an estimated 13 tons of mercury, 3236 tons of arsenic, 189 tons of beryllium, 251 tons of cadmium, and 2754 tons of nickel, and 1098 tons of selenium.

During combustion, coal-fired power plants emit into the air each year 52 tons of mercury, 47 tons of arsenic, 8 tons of beryllium, 3 tons of cadmium, 62 tons of chromium, 52 tons of nickel, and 184 tons of selenium.

However, as air pollution control technology improves, more of these airborne toxicants are captured in the form of a finely divided ash. Coal ash (also called coal combustion waste, or CCW for short) contains large quantities of toxic metals: 44 tons of mercury, 4601 tons of arsenic, 970 tons of beryllium, 496 tons of cadmium, 6275 tons of chromium, 6533 tons of nickel, and 1305 tons of selenium. Many of these elements are toxic to humans and other life-forms in micro-gram quantities.

The ash containing these toxic metals is buried in shallow pits near the coal plants that produced it. There, rain filters through the toxic ash year after year, leaching out the toxic metals and moving them downward (pulled relentlessly by gravity) into the soil and eventually into the groundwater below.

You might ask, what's the big deal? These toxicants started out below ground in coal and now they're ending up below ground again? So what?

You can understand the problem by thinking of a cup of coffee. If you pour water over a few coffee beans, you don't extract much coffee. The result looks pretty much like a cup of hot water. The good stuff remains locked up in the beans. But if you grind up the beans into a finely divided powder, then pour water over them, presto! You get a rich, thick cup of coffee. What has happened is that the surface area of the coffee beans has been enormously increased by grinding them up -- thus exposing a much larger surface to the water, allow the good stuff to be leached out into your cup.

Coal is the same. Coal underground is like coffee beans. Water filtering through a solid seam of coal does not extract much of those toxic metals. But once you mine, crush and burn the coal, turning it into a finely divided ash (like grinding up the beans, vastly increasing the surface area that can come into contact with water), then filter rainwater through it year after year after year - presto! You get a rich, thick, toxic waste capable of poisoning your underground water supply. Placing that finely divided waste into a hole in the ground with a double liner beneath it -- a modern landfill -- does not prevent, but merely delays, the release of the toxicants, allowing the present generation of decision-makers to pretend all is well, but saddling our children with a stupendously large legacy of toxic materials and contaminated water.

If the total weight of coal combustion waste is 120 million tons per year in the U.S., then each of our 500 coal-fired power plants is producing, on average, 240,000 tons of toxic waste each year. If a power plant runs for 40 years, it leaves behind just about 10 million tons of toxic waste (9.6 million tons to be exact). This does not include the "overburden," as it is called -- all the dirt that must be removed to get at the coal. (In the western states, where most of U.S. coal is mined, as much as one ton of overburden waste is created for every ton of coal mined. In Appalachia, where 7% of U.S. coal is mined, 450 mountains have been destroyed by mountain-top- removal coal mining. So far, 700 miles of streams have been filled in (destroyed) by mountain-top-removal wastes in Appalachia.) Then there is acid mine drainage that sours streams below mines for centuries after mining stops. down. The waste produced by coal mining is enormous and enormously destructive.

The 120 million tons of toxic waste also does not include the pollution produced by transporting coal from mine to power plant. About 40% of all rail freight in the U.S., by weight, is coal.

Another serious waste problem created by coal mining is methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas that, pound for pound, has a warming potential 23 times as great as CO2. Since 1750, human industrial activities have roughly doubled the natural amount of methane in the atmosphere, and each year for the past 15 years atmospheric methane has been increasing about 1% per year. Ten percent of this methane is contributed by coal mines.

So how does coal measure up against the green principles? Principle 2 of "green engineering" says, "It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed." And Principle 1 of "green chemistry" says the same thing, "It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed." Could it be any clearer?

Given the mountains of unmanageable toxic waste produced year after year by coal mining, transport, and combustion, we can see right away that coal does not measure up to the standards of "green engineering" or "green chemistry." Not even close. Even if all the carbon dioxide from coal plants could be captured and handed off to our children to worry about, clean coal (and "green coal") would remain nothing more than a public relations gimmick, a fiction, a fraud, a ruse.

Coal is not green. Coal is the color of death.

America's headlong rush to tap its enormous coal reserves for electricity has slowed abruptly, with more than 50 proposed coal–fired power plants in 20 states canceled or delayed in 2007 because of concerns about climate change, construction costs and transportation problems. Furthermore coal or natural gas power generation is generally not portable except as transformed by some other process (eg. gasification).

Burned in about 600 facilities, coal produces more than half of the nation's electricity. About 40% of which comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. Sought after for its low sulfur content, the product is sent all over the country on trains more than 100 cars long. But only two rail companies serve the basin, and for 100 miles they share one set of tracks. Although a more immediate challenge is transportation, from missing links in the rail routes to silted–up Great Lakes shipping channels, raise concerns that coal may not be so simple to get at after all.

Applications for coal plant permits are being denied because of concerns about carbon dioxide emissions, and concerns about other toxic emissions including methyl mercury found increasingly in fish tissues. Fresh water supplies sufficient for "scrubbing" toxins from effluents is a growing problem.

The domestic transport problem has led some coal customers to look overseas for supplies. Despite the promotion of coal as crucial to energy independence, imports have been rising since 2003. For example, Southern Co., the largest power supplier in the Southeast, brings in nearly 19% of its supply through East Coast ports from Colombia, Venezuela and Russia.

The growing push in Washington to do something about global warming is a major factor that affects the cost of burning chunks of solid carbon, by far the dirtiest way to manufacture power. Mountain top removal mining of coal is coming under criticism.

Energy planners say coal needs to be in the mix because the other mainstay fuels for generating electricity also have serious drawbacks. Natural gas has proved volatile in both price and supply. Nuclear power plants are costly and take much longer to build — and the problem of radioactive–waste disposal remains unsolved.

A recent study by the industry–funded Electric Power Research Institute projects that coal power will cost more than nuclear power or natural gas by 2030, if coal's carbon dioxide problem is solved the way most experts envision. Still unproven, that method involves separating carbon dioxide from the gas stream before it heads out of the stacks, collecting the vapors and then storing them underground. That would also require a new network of pipelines to move carbon dioxide from the power plant to a geologically sound site.

However, in the near term, coal clearly will remain a part of the American energy picture.

In any case, coal producers say, surging worldwide demand, especially from China and India, indicates there will be a healthy global market for their product. Indeed, that demand has helped drive up the cost of coal, which has been at record levels for much of 2007, which in turn drives up the potential cost of coal–fired energy.

The president's threat to veto the energy bill forced congressional Democrats to drop a requirement for utilities to meet targets for use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. He has also signaled that he'll reject any global warming legislation that includes mandatory carbon limits.

For environmentalists, a pause in the rush to coal is a good thing. More important is which energy sources utilities to turn to in its place. "That's what this is all about: whether they stick with the old way or we transition to a new, clean way of producing energy." Especially of local concern is the methyl mercury pollution of Crystal River waters such that fish become unfit for human consumption.

Economic issues.

Coal plants were assessed to cost at an average $1000–1500/kW, and gas plants $500–1000/kW. However, a 2007 EU study suggested that all–in–all cost for coal and gas generated electricity would be between US c/kWh 3.65 and 4.90 respectively.

Natural Gas

Click to view the fact sheets on Natural Gas, and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

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