Lawrence Solomon: Singing the praises of coal — the virtuous stone that liberated humanity

(August 25, 2017) Among coal’s virtues is its small ecological footprint, in startling contrast to the clodhoppers that are renewable energy.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post

Oil, gas, and hydroelectricity. Important though they’ve been to the economic life of mankind, none can hold a candle to coal, the most consequential energy source of all. This virtuous fuel — the Romans called it “the best stone in Britain” for its polished beauty when carved into jewelry — did more than power the Industrial Revolution, bringing unprecedented prosperity. Coal also brought enormous social and environmental blessings.

Centuries before the Industrial Revolution, during the reign of Elizabeth I, England was being rapidly deforested by the growing demand for wood fuel — the iron industry had an insatiable desire for charcoal, the navy warned the wood shortage in ship building posed a national security threat, London’s breweries alone required 20,000 wagon loads a year and the poor were especially hard hit, with the wood needed to cook and keep warm increasing in cost at rates far exceeding inflation. Dozens of commissions confirmed the threat to the nation’s forests and even in rural areas the law called for those who stole wood to be “whipped till they bleed well.” Hardships for the poor were especially cruel because England was then in the grips of the Little Ice Age, which hurt the economy as well as increasing the need for home heating.

Coal then came to the rescue, providing heat and warm meals for those who would otherwise have died while slowing the ruinous rate of deforestation the way laws — including a three-mile-wide green belt around London — never could. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, coal had become England’s main source of fuel.

Coal, though then a dirty fuel, was liberating humanity, and being appreciated for it. As put in the mid 19th century by the great American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Every basket is power and civilization. For coal is a portable climate. It carries the heat of the tropics to Labrador and the polar circle; and it is the means of transporting itself whithersoever it is wanted. Watt and Stephenson [inventors of the steam engine and locomotive] whispered in the ear of mankind their secret, that a half-ounce of coal will draw two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat, to make Canada as warm as Calcutta; and with its comfort brings its industrial power.”

Coal would soon electrify the Western world, raising literacy, standards of living and the human condition. Its one great drawback — soot and other harmful emissions — would also be eliminated as harmful levels of mercury, nitrous and sulfurous oxides were abated. Modern coal plants today emit little aside from carbon dioxide, a tasteless, odourless, and colourless gas that is known as “Nature’s fertilizer” — thanks to the ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide, the world’s forests and other biota are flush to overflowing, making Planet Earth the greenest in recorded history.

Among coal’s virtues is its small ecological footprint, in startling contrast to the clodhoppers that are renewable energy. Meeting the world’s energy needs with biofuels would require three times the land area now needed for farming. The land hogs that are solar and wind farms likewise consume far more land than coal mines. And massive hydro dams have been the most ruinous of all the renewables, having flooded the agriculturally and aquaculturally rich river valleys that housed and sustained millions of farmers and fishermen.

Even today, with the world awash in oil and gas, coal continues to shine. Third world countries — China and India especially, but increasingly those in Africa, too — recognize low-cost coal as the key to raising hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest out of poverty, and are building coal plants at a supercharged rate. Coal is so cost-effective that — in a twist on the coals to Newcastle meme — the Middle East is also turning to coal. Coal is also the world’s go-to fuel when disaster strikes — when nuclear plants in Japan and France failed them, dependable coal was there to save the day.

With the Paris climate accord in shambles, the jig is up for renewable energy and nuclear, sham industries that soon will no longer be able to transfer taxpayer subsidies into shareholder pockets. These ephemerals are now going up in smoke, declaring bankruptcy in their hundreds. In their stead coal giants like Peabody, previously bankrupted by Obama, have risen from the ashes, along with the U.S. coal mining industry. Virtue is overcoming the venal in the energy world, to the good of the needy, of the environment, and of society as a whole.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Toronto-based Energy Probe. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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