Democrats & Liberals Archives

Do We Need Coal?

U.S. is abundantly full of coal. Why not substitute liquid fuel derived from coal for gasoline? Since they believe that with the aid of new technology this can be done without hurting our environment, several senators whose states have plentiful coal deposits are advancing a bill to bring about this change. However, carbon dioxide emissions are bound to increase in the manufacturing process and in burning the final product. Coal-derived fuel will make climate change worse.

I was surprised to read in the L.A. Times:

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including one presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), is pushing to provide federal loan guarantees, tax breaks and other subsidies to spur the production of fuel from coal....

The basic idea is that we have 15 states rich in coal deposits, so why not use coal to make our country energy independent? It sounds good. However, merely because we have coal does not mean we must use it. Coal as a fuel has been and is the worst emitter of carbon dioxide. Our major goal to avoid climate-change catastrophe is to reduce CO2 emissions, not to increase them.

Converting coal to a liquid fuel produces CO2. People on both sides of the issue agree this is so. Proponents say they can capture the CO2 and pump it into the ground. Opponents insist that the technology may not work on a large scale and for a long time.

I think this problem may be compared with the waste hazard problem when producing nuclear energy. We don't know what to do with hazardous nuclear waste. Neither do we know what to do with hazardous CO2 waste. CO2 waste is hazardous alright: it may bring environmental destruction.

Even when the coal-derived fuel is burned it produces CO2, though we're not sure about the exact amount. But it does produce CO2.

We need a better approach. Instead of wasting time, money and effort on coal-derived fuel, we need to encourage approaches that eliminate or at least reduce CO2. The very best way to do it today is to increase the efficiency of energy-using products: lights, motors, engines (especially in vehicles), electronic products, kitchen products, home heating, other home utilities, factories,.....

We also need to develop solar cells, batteries, fuel cells and other ways to reduce the production of CO2.

We do not need legislation to support development of coal-derived fuel. We do need legislation to support research to develop alternate sources of energy that do not produce CO2.

Posted by Paul Siegel at May 10, 2007 6:01 PM
Comments
Comment #220036

Paul,

I agree with the need for all of the alternative fuels you mention. I am also happy to see emphasize the importance of energy efficiency — that’s a concept often overlooked in these discussions. However, I disagree with you about abandoning clean coal, coal gasification, and carbon sequesterian R&D. Coal accounts for half or so (I forget the exact figures) of all the electricity produced in this country. No one projects that any of the alternative fuels will be able to account for that much energy in the next several decades. We are already building a demonstration zero emission coal plant; we are already researching large scale sequestrian methods. In my opinion, it would be foolish to abandon such efforts given that the status quo is dirtier coal plants.

For information on current efforts, here’s a link.

There seems to be an assumption in your article that the federal government is not researching alternative and renewable fuels. That’s not true. There is no need to cast this as either clean coal or alternatives/renewables.

Posted by: Gerrold at May 10, 2007 6:35 PM
Comment #220043

Paul, ok, so it looks as if we’re back to the global warming “consensus” BS again. Let science “prove” that CO2 is harming the earth and that “humans” are actually causing global warming. Let them prove it, not just generally agree for political purposes. By the way, of course the Senators from the coal producing areas are behind the coal changes. Duh!

Posted by: rahdigly at May 10, 2007 7:58 PM
Comment #220044

CO2 lags temperature change. That means it is a product of temperature change - not a cause of it. Fuel from coal is fine as long as the cost to produce it is reasonable, but first let’s exhaust the world’s supply of oil. Actually let’s go nuclear and have fuel from coal one of those quaint little “oh yeah there is also … ” type of things.

Posted by: EdB at May 10, 2007 8:04 PM
Comment #220048

Carbon tax takes care of it.

Posted by: Jack at May 10, 2007 8:35 PM
Comment #220052

You need to figure in about 8k worth of fatalities and another half million injuries into the U.S. coal equation; mining has its hazards.

Posted by: George in SC at May 10, 2007 9:26 PM
Comment #220054

We could always include in the language that the plant has to have a net output (including the burned byproduct) of CO2 less then that of Oil. Part of this could be acheived by building the plant so as you burn Coal for its energy the exhaust is funneled into a greenhouse so that the CO2 from the burning coal is used to grow bio-fuels, food-stuffs, Lumber/bamboo, ect. This could be done in a Carbon neutral way compared to Oil or even less Carbon then Using Oil. These technologies exist today that is why I am not completely against this, it is also a national security issue. 1% less Oil used by USA is 1% less money we are paying the terrorists.
I also have to agree with Jack on this one we need a carbon tax, if we want to reduce CO2 the best way to do it is make it cost more. We could also use a Cap and trade system in conjuction with the tax, that way when you go over a certain amount you get the double wammy. Think of the incentive for the Coal industry to help out the Universities in their states make Coal plants carbon neutral.
If approaced right I can see this working well in the favor of the American citizen and word population. Just think of all the money we could make leasing China the technology to have their Coal plant become Carbon neutral to meet their limits in the world total carbon cap.
I hate paying more for anything just like the next guy but I also understand to get alternative energy affordable you have to have a little pain. So in conjuction with the research on the coal we should also have the carbon tax to make sure they do it cleanly.

Posted by: timesend at May 10, 2007 9:52 PM
Comment #220066

EdB,
Pretty much everyone above the 5th grade knows where CO2 comes from and why. Hint - you’re not even close.

Posted by: Schwamp at May 11, 2007 7:44 AM
Comment #220073

I’m surprised by the amount of coal (and other hydrocarbon) burning is no big deal sentiment. As anybody who has an understanding of combustion, ideally it would produce only water vapor as a by-product (Hydrogen binding with Oxygen releases energy). Unfortunately, natural sources of hydrogen suitable for burning are largely found with carbon. There is probably no way to avoid the carbon from combining with the oxygen in the process.

Methods to bury the CO2 underground has the same problem that nuclear energy has with such a method for waste products. Leaks will occur. France which is powered by nuclear energy reprocess the waste so nothing is left over. (Yes, part of that is making bombs.) So it can be done with nuclear. Hydrocarbons present a more difficult problem but there is no reason no to look for a solution. But I would not expect one from the results to date.

So, unless you don’t mind that our atmosphere is approaching that mix that was present when the dinosaurs walked the earth, we need to do something. (From what we know, the age of dinosaurs was not very good for warm blooded animals. But tropical vacations in Antarctica might be fun.)

Solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power are all ways to produce electricity with minor side effects. They are not economically competitive because of the ease in burning hydrocarbons. So, I think taxing CO2 production is the best way to the desired result.

But it is not a minor problem. Hundreds of millions of people will be displaced. Unknown changes will occur in agriculture and availability of clean water. Weather will be more violent. And it will be uncomfortably hot. Not a pretty picture to say the least.

Posted by: John at May 11, 2007 10:30 AM
Comment #220076

Paul - don’t be too surprised to see Mr. Obama on that list. Illinois is the fifth largest coal producer in the USA. Unfortunately, even decent politicians need the occasional roll in the pork barrel.

Posted by: Jon Rice at May 11, 2007 11:24 AM
Comment #220082

Jon, I’m not aware of any projections that say we will greatly reduce the need for coal within the next several decades. Advances in renewables and energy efficiency are incorporated into the projections of the Energy Information Administration. Given that coal is here to stay at least for a while, it seems only prudent to use it in as environmentally a fashion as possible.

Burial is only one of the carbon sequestration methods being studied. Others include converting C02 into inert masses which then can be used for various purporses, engineering biological processes to break the molecule down and produce acetate and methane, genetically engineering trees to increase sequestering potential, etc. I think it would be very shortsighted to pull the plug on this sort of R&D.

No one projects that consumption of energy will decrease anytime soon. Increased economic and population pressures are projected to increase demand even though efficiencies are also projected to continue to increase. Ideally, renewables and alternatives would quickly reduce our need for hydrocarbons, but realistically, we are stuck with fossil fuels for decades to come. Therefore, it makes sense to find ways to make their use cleaner while at the same time encouraging adoption and continued development of (1) energy efficient technologies and processes and (2) alternative and renewable fuels.

Posted by: Gerrold at May 11, 2007 12:45 PM
Comment #220089

The coal produced in Illinois around Carbondale is high sulfur coal, and was considered worthless after acid rain became a major issue.

Posted by: ohrealy at May 11, 2007 2:14 PM
Comment #220090

timesend:

“Part of this could be acheived by building the plant so as you burn Coal for its energy the exhaust is funneled into a greenhouse so that the CO2 from the burning coal is used to grow bio-fuels, food-stuffs, Lumber/bamboo, ect.”

This is a good idea. If this can be done efficiently and without too much CO2 emission I’ll be for it.

Posted by: Paul Siegel at May 11, 2007 2:22 PM
Comment #220137

EdB,

The lag between CO2 and temperature is not evidence against human caused Global Warming. See here and here for more details:

Does this prove that CO2 doesn’t cause global warming? The answer is no.

The reason has to do with the fact that the warmings take about 5000 years to be complete. The lag is only 800 years. All that the lag shows is that CO2 did not cause the first 800 years of warming, out of the 5000 year trend. The other 4200 years of warming could in fact have been caused by CO2, as far as we can tell from this ice core data.

The 4200 years of warming make up about 5/6 of the total warming. So CO2 could have caused the last 5/6 of the warming, but could not have caused the first 1/6 of the warming.
and
We cannot explain the temperature observations without CO2. But CO2 does not explain all of the change, and the relationship between temperature and CO2 is therefore by no means linear

Posted by: LawnBoy at May 12, 2007 7:26 AM
Comment #220138
Let science “prove” that CO2 is harming the earth and that “humans” are actually causing global warming. Let them prove it, not just generally agree for political purposes.

rahdigly,

They have proved it. For the doubters, let them accept the proven science, not just disagree for political purposes.

Posted by: LawnBoy at May 12, 2007 7:28 AM
Comment #220308

The world desperately needs nuclear power, even though radical liberal environmental thugs wage war against it.

Posted by: StephenL at May 14, 2007 4:57 PM
Comment #220327

StephenL,

Why not make a case for nuclear power, examining the issues, the economics, instead of indulging in easy name calling?

Posted by: Gerrold at May 14, 2007 7:49 PM
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