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Fig. 7.0 "The world coal consumption and demand. Image Courtesy: USEIA."

Environment Specials: A Coal Love Story

By: Weatherguy Adonis

Adonis S. Manzan

World Coal Addiction vs. 21st Century Environmental Revolution

Iloilo City, Philippines, 17 April 2012, (1600Z)–As the global industries continues to thrive today, the world has never felt such greed to build more from the “Cheapest,” source of energy known to mankind since its first discovery in Virginia, U.S.A., which forged the beginning of the Industrial Revolution of early 1800s.  Today’s heat reached 34C, and it felt uncomfortable despite the cloud cover over our heads, thanks to the prevailing Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), while most parts of the Philippine archipelago sizzles even more in 36C boiler, which to note, most of my brothers in the group in Manila have been noticing the unrelenting intense temperature in the cityscapes where predominantly, skyscrapers tower into the city skyline with all the glamour and glitz of glass magnificence and good ‘ol cemented highrises–a commanding symbol of success and economic upturn that defines the type of living across all nooks and cranny of the metropolis proved unbearable for its people–Mercury rising.

There’s no cooler place to in right in the heart of our cities, where the success story were laid in its foundations beneath our foot soles.  It is where we got life’s conveniences all from cheap stuffs like garments, shoes, bags, raw materials from plant matter and bunker oil-based products, to the very basic needs in everyday living rooms, posh spaces and adequate lighting during the darkest of hours.

The modern world need energy, and lots of it. Everyday, pollution levels skyrocket, bringing the health hazards with it. And it’s not that far to any of us who live in the cities to feel the impacts of air pollution of everyday living. One has to consider that the environment that we have right now will be the kind of life our children’s children in the future, and that is if there will remain a better place for them to live through.

In today’s discussion, I’m about to tackle the aspect of having a cheaper way of producing a global electricity need that dates back in 1800s in a town of West Virginia, U.S.A. The so-called “Coal Revolution,” that ushered the economic miracle in American history that to this day, the world has a growing demand of such mineral resource in order to fuel a continued growth in almost all sorts  of industry today.

Fig. 1.0 "An american miner, shovels the mine pit of coal deposits."

A Brief History

In 1701, “Coal” was discovered in West Virginia and was regarded as a mineral that could revolutionize energy and production. In its early discovery, not until 1748, that it was found to have great use when coal production was recorded in America, and in 13th of April 1750, a man in the person of Dr. Thomas Walker was the first recorded person to discover and use coal in Kentucky.

Since the early 1800s, West Virginia has been estimating that the mineable coal reserves could have reached to nearly 117 billion tons in 62 mineable seams and 45 unminable seams, according to sources.

According to the U.S. Energy & Information Administration (USEIA), “Coal,” would require millions of years to create, since it is a mineral creation of unimaginable history of sedimentation that has resulted to rocky composition of carbons and hydrocarbons, which experts believed that such resources is among abundant fossil fuel produced in the United States alone.

The agency added that since “Coal,” is a nonrenewable energy source because it takes millions of years to create, the energy in coal comes from the energy stored by plants that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, when the Earth was partly covered with swampy forests.

Fig. 2.0 "How coal created through millions of years. Image Courtesy: USEIA."

For millions of years, a layer of dead plants at the bottom of the swamps was covered by layers of water and dirt, trapping the energy of the dead plants. The heat and pressure from the top layers helped the plant remains turn into what we today call coal.

Today, these resource are being turned for producing electric power that generates industries, which the Coal-Fired Power Plants (CFPPs), use steam turns turbines, which the agency called it as “machines for generating rotary mechanical power,” thus it generates electricity. Such end-products generate not only energy for our businesses, homes and industries, but it also benefit our way of modern living, which most people consider a priority as it provides them employment, thus jobs that feed their families too.

Other industries that depend on coal technology use heat and by-products of Coal ingredients such as Methanol and Ethylene which are used in producing plastics, to inlcude tar, synthetic fibers, fertilizers, and medicines.

Fig. 3.0 "Coal miner pushes loads of coal towards a receiving point after the mineral has been extracted below the ground."

Coal is also used to make steel, where a process of steel being subjected to extreme heat in hot furnaces to make coke, which is used to smelt iron ore into iron needed for making steel. It is the very high temperatures created from the use of “coke,” that gives steel the strength and flexibility for things like bridges, buildings, and automobiles.

USEIA also added that concrete and paper industries also use large amounts of coal.

In such contrast, man has to balance his needs and the environment. Tip the balance between the two, and you now have humongous problems in the way.

Coal Industry Environmental Impacts Cited By USEIA

In the US alone, “Surface, or strip mines,” are the source of about 70% of the coal that is mined.  These mining operations remove the soil and rock above coal deposits, or “seams,” disturbing land at its surface. The amount of coal produced at a surface mine is not only determined by the area of land being mined at the surface but the thickness of the coal deposit. For example, in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where coal deposits may run 70 feet deep, a few acres of land may produce millions of tons of coal.

One surface mining technique that has affected large areas of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia and Kentucky is mountain top removal and valley fill mining, where the tops of mountains have been removed using a combination of explosives and mining equipment and deposited into nearby valleys. As a result, the landscape is changed, and streams may be covered with a mixture of rock and dirt. The water draining from these filled valleys may contain pollutants that can harm aquatic wildlife downstream. While mountain-top mining has been around since the 1970s, its use became more widespread and controversial since the 1990s.

Fig. 4.0 "A blast furnace in one of the steel manufacturing companies existing in so many countries around the world. Image Courtesy: BBC, USEIA."

U.S. laws require that dust and water runoff from the affected area has to be controlled, and that the area has to be “reclaimed” close to its original condition. Many surface mines have been reclaimed so well that it can be hard to tell that there was a surface mine in the area. However, there are areas that have not been reclaimed as successfully.

Underground mines have less overall impact on the environment than surface mines. The most serious impact of underground mining may be the methane gas that has to be vented out of mines to make the mines safe to work in. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, meaning that on an equal-weight basis its global warming potential is much higher than for that of other greenhouse gases. In 2009, Methane emissions from underground mines accounted for about 10% of total U.S. Methane emissions and 1% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Surface mines contributed about 2% of U.S. Methane emissions.

The ground above mine tunnels can collapse, and acidic water can drain from abandoned underground mines. Underground coal mining is a dangerous profession, and coal miners can be injured or killed in mining accidents, especially in countries without strict safety regulations and procedures. Miners can also get black lung disease from the coal dust in the mines.

Here are mostly the emission materials released into the atmosphere by burning coal, as defined by the USEIA:

  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2), which contributes to acid rain and respiratory illnesses
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx), which contributes to smog and respiratory illnesses
  • Particulates, which contribute to smog, haze, and respiratory illnesses and lung disease
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the primary greenhouse gas emission from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas)
  • Mercury and other heavy metals, which has been linked with both neurological and developmental damage in humans and other animals. Mercury concentrations in the air usually are low and of little direct concern. However, when mercury enters water — either directly or through deposition from the air — biological processes transform it into methylmercury, a highly toxic chemical that accumulates in fish and the animals (including humans) that eat fish.
  • Fly ash and bottom ash are residues created when coal is burned at power plants. In the past, fly ash was released into the air through the smokestack, but by law much of it now must be captured by pollution control devices, like scrubbers. In the United States, fly ash is generally stored at coal power plants or placed in landfills. Pollution leaching from ash storage and landfills into groundwater has emerged as a new environmental concern.

Mitigation Measures Up

Most CFPP now are using “scrubbers,” known as flue gas desulfurization equipment to reduce the amount of sulfur going out of smokestacks.

USEIA says, power plants use flue gas desulfurization equipment, also known as “scrubbers,” to clean sulfur from the smoke before it leaves their smokestacks. In addition, industry and government have cooperated to develop technologies that can remove impurities from coal or that make coal more energy-efficient so less needs to be burned.

Fig. 5.0 "One of the many global action against coal industry, where protests are conveying to the consumers on how environmentally destructive coal is."

Equipment intended mainly to reduce SO2 (such as scrubbers), NOx (such as catalytic converters), and particulate matter (such as electrostatic precipitators and baghouses) is also able to reduce mercury emissions from some types of coal. Scientists are also working on new ways to reduce mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants.

But there are lots of hazardous materials that are being released into the atmosphere without regard to human and environment safety. This is what concerns us in the prevalence of chronic diseases exposure especially those in the immediate vicinity or path of the smoke emission into the air.

Fig. 6.0 "Greenpeace activists protest in an ongoing coal facility in Sual, Pangasinan, Philippines, wherein the largest CFPP can be found, just 12 km from Dagupan City. Image Courtesy: Greenpeace SEA."

Experts around the world are researching on best ways to mitigate the impacts of coal, dubbed “Black Gold,” as a resource for energy generation. The Carbon dioxide, “CO2,” emission from coal combustion are being considered to be candidate for Carbon sequestration, which the processes involves the capturing of CO2, which scientists believed that it can be encapsulated into a concentrated stream. “CO2 can then be sequestered, which puts CO2 into storage, possibly underground, in such a way that it will remain there permanently,” according to studies.

USEIA also considers greatly the reuse and recycling option that can also reduce coal’s environmental impact. Land that was previously used for coal mining can be reclaimed for uses like airports, landfills, and golf courses. Waste products captured by “scrubbers,” can be used to produce products like cement and synthetic gypsum for wallboard.

A Real World With Coal 

There has been evidenciary support that coal industry has yet to reached the ceiling as the wants of the modern world requirement demands higher energy input, despite the best of efforts thrown by many environmental groups. The reality is that, coal energy is dirty, filthy and cheap source of producing electricity in all sorts, and rapping up its usage could translate into loss of jobs by the millions from around the globe. This is what power companies in the energy sector are always bragging about, to balance their vast interest of resources, the business climate and all money–but there’s a catch, and I am pretty sure we are all aware of its ill-effects to health, welfare and right to breathe clean air, free from all lethal emissions from these plants, away from the hazards of city living, and more importantly, a world without a threat to its environment. Man has been doing these irrational development, without high regard to humanity’s enduring spirit for survival.

Fig. 7.0 "The world coal consumption and demand. Image Courtesy: USEIA."

I should say, the world, and to include its people, led by greedy political leaders have become all greedier, with others in the advanced stage of higher greediness, which even the current of records, greed that is beyond comprehension.

In every action, there are clear repercussions. One way or the other, we will see, feel, and expect extreme climatic events, and it’s just beginning.

Let us not forget that all the world extremes in “Climate Change,” Sea level rise, increasingly stronger Hurricane, Typhoons and Tropical Cyclones in all of the world’s oceans, and the extreme Tornadoes in the US, and other corners of the world, too. These aren’t directed to Climate Change alone. A lot of interconnecting weather phenomena lock in together to create such a violent turn.

Not all can be blamed on adverse effects on Climate Change alone. We must ponder to our past, in order to read the lines in between for the future, so don’t fret yet!

How about the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle in the Central Pacific Basin and the ever-persistent La Niña episode of 2010-2012 season, that has wreaked havoc on global crops production, affecting world food supply, dislodged many industries, and destroyed infrastructures and a display of man’s vulnerability. All the more that we should be more concerned of are the irreplaceable destruction of the environment, induced by human activity and unrelenting abuses. There are so many things that we continually miss everyday.

We just have to be more sensitive to all these things around us. It is our life, yes, but a policy of “Bad-neighbor,” that creates problems to neighboring countries, where most advanced civilizations did to the less advanced, more inferior kind–the world class category per Capita.

In Asia, where the demand for more energy output  can’t be ignored. In the center of it all is China and India, where billionth population, increasingly growing markets, considered as untapped regions of revenues, untapped territories of wealth usher in the influx of overseas investments to a staggering pace, even inner Mongolia regions along the remotest “Tibetan Plateau,” has been wreaked by the Chinese companies, paved the way for human incursions in a very secluded far regions in the mountainous Tibet.

China could be the emerging giant with far greater resource to combat recession levels as with the United States, with a huge slump of jobs creation, political divisions and new wars with other erring nations in the Middle East, especially Nuclear Iran and the Pakistan-Afghanistan connection.

Most recently, the grappling for more fuel and resource-hungry China, thus the recent provocations in a highly tense drama, in high profile marine skirmishes along the disputed waters off Spratlys archipelago, and the West Philippine Sea, over the “Panatag Shoal,” internationally recognized as “Scarborough Shoal.”

Said spot was estimated to be at 139 nm (257 km), well-within the border of the 200-nm (370 km) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of my country, as defined under the United Nations Convention of the Law of Seas (UNCLOS), where Chinese interests are in gross violation of the international laws.

Still China managed to wrestle it out with other Southeast Asian neighbors, severely in March 24th of 1988 with Viet Nam, where sixty-four (64) of its light-armed maritime protection force paid with their lives, protecting what they assert their motherland territory over Spratlys archipelago–all for greed and power. What about the North Korean headache? Well, I need not reiterate on how huge these challenges have been so far. It should only frighten us all!

The tensions between nations grow larger by the day over the disputed seas continue today, hotter than the surface of the Sun in diplomatic sense I can see it through with the recent developments. This is where wars are made of, in search for untapped resource, ending up with provocations with other rather “peaceful nations,” and by such, end all peaceful coexistence, thus destroy the brotherhood of nations–an ongoing saga of greed, power of corrupt minds in the governments.

Considering that Asia is power-hungry, clamoring for more fuel source to respond in a growing pace of growth and unrivaled consumerism, the U.S.A, as the world’s second largest coal exporter, and consumer, gave rise to sending more resource to the emerging Asian markets that has almost tripled that of 2010 figures. Rapid growth and rising demand for energy was considered a boon for the industry.

Fig. 8.0 "Coal-Fired Power Plants (CFPPs) in the Philippines produce high cost electricity, a sharp contrast to USA, European and neighboring SEA countries. Image Courtesy: Skyscrapercity/Weatherguy Adonis."

Of all countries in Asia, China’s consumption for more fuel, to generate more wealth to its billions of people, according to studies, four (4) CFPPs go online in weeks-time after finished construction, that’s how large the market is in China alone. Environment regulation there are no less tactful, and with the demand for more of coal-intensive industries, China will singularly overrun the US market in the coming years in terms of consumption and wealth generation.

Environmental problems in China mounts and it cannot be ignored. As evidenced by smog-ridden skyline, before in Beijing, but not now. The emerging industry made cross-border emissions, affecting neighboring provinces and cities in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Eastern states, adding to more hazardous air pollution levels, to include Mercury emissions, CO2, NOx–two pollutants linked to smog-related illnesses, not to mention its huge input to global greenhouse gases trapped into the atmosphere.

Back in the U.S.A., Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson in a statement, “No community should bear the burden of another community’s polluters or be powerless to act against air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses.”

In consideration of our local situation, the Philippines, belong to the third world, yes it is true. What matters now are the ways of living in my country and the economy. Most recently, the environmental issues, to take note a few, are the seemingly fizzling environmental advocacies, regulators of health advocates in the wake of international taking-a-back attitude that has gripped the world’s largest and most dominant countries reason with so many internal conflicts, insurgency issues, where environmental advancement are being left out into the Sun’s UV-Rays, lying dry, almost dead by our standards.

If we are to deserve a better future, curbing King Coal is the answer if it would require a billionth steps, then so be it. Man should think wiser these days.

Sources: US Energy & Information Administration, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), UNESCO, Reuters, TIME.

 (Note: If you have queries, email me at amanzan@smartbro.net or through weatherguyadonis@theboplive.net)

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