Coal is still king

Lawrence Solomon
Financial Post
August 29, 2009

Governments are enthusiastically pushing coal on the assumption that carbon capture and storage technologies will work.

We can’t continue to use the atmosphere as a dump for carbon dioxide emissions, say governments concerned about global warming. Rather than storing this colourless, odourless, tasteless gas way up there, they reason, let’s store the carbon dioxide way down here, buried under ground or in the oceans.

And since burial solves the carbon dioxide problem, they then conclude, we can with a clear conscience crank up our use of coal.

This is the case in Canada, where the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy proposes a continuation of the boom that we’ve seen in coal mining this decade. This is the case in the U.S., where coal production has been steadily growing and where President Barack Obama touts coal above other energy options. And this is especially the case in the United Kingdom, perhaps the world’s most earnest warner of global warming catastrophe. The U.K. is today so bullish on burial that it has resuscitated the coal mining industry that Maggie Thatcher tried to kill off in the 1980s.

In the last four years, the U.K. has approved 54 coal mines, most of them open-pit, while simultaneously pointing to the aggressive reductions in CO2 emissions to which it’s committed — 34% by 2020. Scotland, which boasts the world’s very toughest CO2 reduction targets (42% by 2020), has approved 25 new open-pit mines, helping them along by relaxing planning regulations that apply to open-pit mines. Because all this isn’t enough, the U.K. is considering the approval of another 19 open-pit mines as well as upping its coal imports too.

“We don’t see this as counter to our climate change message,” cheerily states the government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change. “The U.K. is at the forefront of global efforts to decarbonise fossil fuels.”

The decarbonisation that the U.K. government refers to involves burial on land and — especially attractive for an island nation — at sea. A recently released Scottish government report determined that the Scottish area of the North Sea alone could store all the carbon dioxide that all the coal-fired plants in the U.K. would produce over the next two centuries, leading the Scottish First Minister to speculate that a high-tech carbon capture and storage industry could create 10,000 Scottish jobs.

But ocean storage raises a tide of objections from environmentalists, Greenpeace among them. Carbon dioxide in water could seriously acidify the oceans — already a concern — removing nutrients for plankton in areas like the U.K.’s North Sea as well as in shallow ocean waters, and affecting the food source for marine life. Some ocean storage technologies kill marine life directly. Plus, many scientists believe the oceans will fail to effectively contain carbon dioxide, which will be pumped into waters in either liquid or gaseous form. No one, not even the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considers ocean storage to be much more than a concept, let alone a proven technology.

The potential for havoc to humans is much greater with carbon storage facilities under land. Carbon dioxide could adversely acidify groundwater, leading to leaching of contaminants into the water supply and rendering aquifers unusable.  For this reason and others — an unplanned release of the gas could suffocate humans or animals, and carbon storage can induce earthquakes — governments on both sides of the Atlantic have proposed carbon storage facilities and communities have opposed them.

How will this all end? We can be confident that coal use will keep on growing for decades to come, in line with official projections that show worldwide demand soon doubling —without coal for electricity production, most jurisdictions will be unable to keep the lights on. We can also be confident that communities will successfully fend off many if not most of the carbon storage schemes that threaten them and their environments. Finally, we can be confident that governments, after spending tens of billions on carbon storage schemes of dubious benefit, will conclude that the safest place to store today’s relatively high levels of carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, where it now resides.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute and author of The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud.

Click here to read the Sources used in this column.

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