Coal Mining, Coal as an Energy Source and the Environment

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.