Coal Mining, Coal as an Energy Source and the Environment
Coal mining is an important industry and is especially significant to the economy of West Virginia, both in terms of GDP and employment. Unlike gas and oil there are enough coal reserves to last at least 100 years, assuming current population growth rates. That’s the good news.
The issues in the short term are relatively low pay for the health hazards and working conditions. Below ground coal miners earn an average of $19 per hour. Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), also known as black lung disease or black lung, is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. It is common in coal miners and others who work with coal. It is similar to both silicosis from inhaling silica dust and asbestos dust.
Deforestation and Erosion: As part of the process of clearing the way for a coal mine, trees are cut down or burned, plants uprooted and the topsoil scraped away. This results in the destruction of the land (it can no longer be used for planting crops) and soil erosion.
Even more important is the impact that burning coal for power production has on the environment. Burning coal releases toxins. Coal contains sulfur and other elements, including dangerous metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic, that escape into the air when coal is burned. Burning coal also produces particulates that increase air pollution and health dangers.
Burning coal emits large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Coal is composed almost entirely of carbon, so burning coal unleashes large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. These emissions have been shown to increase the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere and lead to global warming.
Because coal is so abundant and relatively inexpensive, many people are reluctant to give it up as a fuel source. Luckily, ways to use coal more sustainably and minimize its environmental damage are available. Clean coal solutions include the following:
- Integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC): IGCC technology converts coal into gas, removing sulfur and metals. This gas generates electricity by fueling turbines while the side products (sulfur and metals) are concentrated and sold. IGCC plants are cleaner and more efficient than coal-burning electric plants and have the potential to capture CO2 emissions in the future.
- Carbon sequestration: One of the biggest problems with burning coal is the amount of CO2 it adds to the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration includes various ways to capture and store carbon underground instead of allowing it to fill the atmosphere. Currently, some coal-burning plants store carbon in underground abandoned mines or in oil wells. Other plants pump the carbon into sedimentary rocks or below the ocean floor.
Our Fragile Earth – Think about it
I have a concern about our short-term thinking. The stock market moves up or down based on the news and/or psychology of the day. Publicly traded companies focus on quarterly results. Politicians focus on elections every two years. As a Homo Sapiens we have only been around for about 200,000 years (or about 6,500 years if you are a Creationist).
Mother Earth has been around for about 4.5 billion years and some form of life has existed for about 3.5 billion years. The Dinosaurs showed up about 250 million years ago and ruled for almost 200 million years. The Egyptians ruled for over 2,700 years and the Roman Empire took over for the next 500.
Our country has existed for less than 250 years and has only been a world leader for about 75 years. In the last 60 years the world population has doubled!
The land that we occupy is only about 1/3 of the surface of the Earth. The earth’s crust (that we depend on for life) is only about 18 miles thick below land. The remainder is mostly ocean that has an average depth of about 2 ½ miles. The crust below it only aveages about 5 miles. Think about these measurements in terms of the size of the earth which has a diameter of 4,000 miles.
What about the atmosphere that we require to breath? Healthy people can survive to 10,000 feet. Above that, most people need oxygen. From 12,00 feet to 50,000 feet oxygen and a pressure suit or a pressurized container is required. Above 50,000 feet a fully sealed suit or a space suit is needed.
To summarize these facts: We live on an extremely thin outer crust of the planet and rely of an extremely thin band of air to stay alive. As a species we have been around for less than .006% of the time since life emerged. Home Sapiens took the first 199,940 years to provide a population of 3.6 biiion and only 60 years to add another 3.6 billion. Do you see a problem here?
Guests in the Americas
Let’s face it, we are all newcomers to our country and to all of the American Continents. Our view of history is typically limited to the European “discovery” and “flag planting”. How would we feel if the Chinese came over and planted their flag on our shores and claimed our land because they had done so? The following is from Craig Childs in an article for National Geographic:
- “The first arrivals keep getting older and older because we’re finding more evidence as time goes on. Right now we can solidly say that people were across the Americas by 15,000 years ago. But that means people were probably already well in place by then; and there’s enough evidence to suggest humans were widespread 20,000 years ago. There’s some evidence of people as far back as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, but the evidence gets thinner and thinner the further back you go. It appears there’s not a single arrival date. No doubt there was a first person walking in, but when that happened is well before 20,000 years ago.
- The solid dates of 15,000 are based on sites where you can find fire pits, burned bones and work stones that have been turned into scrapers and hammers and spear points. When you go back further, you’re finding mammoths that have been shattered open in a way that’s characteristic of humans. Then you start getting into these questions of what really counts as a sign of human presence, and what is just a trampled mammoth bone that happens to look like it was struck by a human with a rock.”
There has been quite a bit of discussion concerning the origins of the original Americans. The long-accepted theory was that they came from Asia over the land bridge during the ice age. More recently there is evidence that people also migrated from Europe far earlier than the Vikings. Craig continues……
- “What I took away was that people came from everywhere. We think of the arrival of the first people as one group braving their way across a land bridge, when in fact it was many groups, many different languages, and technologies arriving at different times from different directions. This makes sense because that’s how we do things as humans. It’s not just one group. It is this complex story of many people, with many different stories.”
The original Americans that the Europeans encountered were likely the decedents of ancestors that came from came from……… you guessed it, Europe. In the very early days of the inhabited Americas all were welcome. In the very early days of the USA all were welcome. What happened to Miss Liberty’s cry? “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”