"Orthographic aerial photograph of Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill, in Kingston, Tennessee, taken the day after the event." Photo: Public domain
CO2 is Important, But Not the Only Thing
David Roberts over at Grist has a great rebuttal of Thom Friedman's latest column in which he and investor Vinod Khosla seem to overlook many of the problems caused by coal mining and coal burning. It's a good thing that concerns about greenhouse gas emissions are now on everybody's mind, but we have to be careful to not getting tunnel vision.Roberts points out that:
Getting coal out of the ground is horrifically destructive to both ecosystems and human communities. Washing coal to prepare it for transport leaves behind multi-million gallon pools of toxic slurry, which regularly fail and flood nearby communities. Transporting coal is a carbon-intensive and destructive undertaking in itself. In Appalachia, gigantic trucks careen downhill on narrow roads carrying enormous coal loads trailing toxic dust. Coal trains also lock up most of the country's rail infrastructure, which could otherwise be used for low-carbon freight shipping.
Burning coal is also horrific. It leaves behind enormous quantities of heavy metal-laden coal ash, often in uncovered impoundments, from which ash drifts onto local communities. (Some coal ash is used in concrete too, but that doesn't make it clean either.) In fact, efforts in recent decades to scrub air pollutants out of smokestacks in response to Clean Air Act requirements have led to more coal ash, as pollutants are effectively transferred from the air to the ash, where they are far less strictly regulated.
Into the air it releases not only CO2 but sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and smog-forming particulates.
And the list goes on and on.
The "clean coal" blind alley must be recognized for what it is: a multi-faceted problem that is a lot harder to solve than the coal industry pretends. It's true that it would be a big step in the right direction if CO2 from coal combustion could be sequestered, but it would still leave coal as one of the most destructive energy sources we have, and the danger is that the resources and time that we spend on this problem could be better used to do other things (how about building a thorium demonstration plant?).
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