December 7, 2007
Coal, chock-full of substances of known toxicity, epitomizes dirty fuel. The perils in coal burning – and this is an abbreviated list – include fly ash and heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, sulphur., vanadium, beryllium, cadmium, barium, chromium, molybdenum, zinc, selenium, radium, uranium and thorium. If these substances and their byproducts are not controlled in coal burning, to keep emissions within safe levels, human health and the environment can suffer.
Coal burning also produces one substance that may be entirely benign or even positively beneficial. That substance is carbon dioxide, a highly stable gas that is indispensable to all plant and animal life.
Ironically, it is this one emission from coal that many in the Western environmental movement now attack, while the other emissions receive relatively little attention. Ironically, but not illogically.
From the Garden of Eden to Plato’s Republic to More’s Utopia, man has dreamed of an idyllic society. The early 19th-century utopians campaigned to depopulate cities, which they saw as wicked and dehumanizing, and to create vast conservation areas that would be off-limits to industrial activity and conducive to man’s communion with nature.
In the last half of the century, in reaction to the excesses of the Consumer Society, utopians espoused that we go Back to the Land, practice Voluntary Simplicity, recognize that Small Is Beautiful, and accept the teachings of the Club of Rome, whose computers reported that the world was about to run out of resources. These were moral movements above all – by exhausting the world’s store of non-renewable resources instead of living within the budget provided by renewable resources, these utopians argued, we were living beyond our means, selfishly making merry at the expense of future generations through a one-time plunder of nature’s stores.
To end the plunder and see the dawn of a righteous society, requires, above all, an end to the use of non-renewable fossil fuels. For this reason, prospects of an end to oil are in perpetual vogue – “peak oil” theories being the most recent manifestation. Such utopians are also warmed at the prospect of running out of natural gas. In both cases, official estimates of remaining reserves, and the high prices that these fuels command in the marketplace, signal that the end could be near.
Coal provides no such signal. Its price is low and its supply effectively inexhaustible – utopians face the bleak prospect of centuries of coal burning, with only the most utopian among them believing predictions that peak coal is also upon us. To eschew non-renewable resources and live within our means – today we call it “sustainable development” – coal must be outlawed.
Soot, or solid fly ash, once represented excellent grounds for curbing coal. Horrendous breathing conditions in centuries past claimed countless lives, and even in the last half of the 20th century coal was capable of blackening our skies. The exhaust from today’s smokestacks is altogether different. Soot has been negligible for decades and has been becoming more so with every passing decade – the current U.S. standard, now being phased in, bans particles larger than 2.5 microns in diameter, about 1/30th the width of a human hair. Soot remains a problem for society, but not one that can be laid at the foot of a coal bed.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and the Urban Renaissance Institute.