Blog: Mother Earth Heals
by Liora Leah

Coal--the "New" Fuel

As oil reserves decline world-wide, coal may replace oil as the major resource for fuel. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of man-made CO2. New technologies may make coal-burning less polluting, but are being met with resistance by the coal industry... and then there is the consequence to the Earth from surface-stripping coal from the ground in massive mines.

Date:   9/23/2005 12:41:20 AM   ( 16 y ) ... viewed 1895 times

According to the article below, we're not at the end of the road after we run out of oil, but the alternative isn't very pretty:

"Coal is the enemy," says Roel Hammerschlag, a widely respected energy analyst who runs the Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment in Seattle. "It's worse than oil. We're going to run out of oil in the next century, but it's easy to synthesize methanol and other liquid fuels from coal. So coal will replace oil. And there's at least 300 years' worth of coal still in the ground. That's enough to raise atmospheric CO2 to insanely high concentrations -- 10 times preindustrial levels." from "How to Clean Coal--If we burn this stuff the old way, the planet is toast. But a new technology is waiting in the wings" by Craig Canine, NRDC online magazine Onearth, Fall 2005

In this very long article, Canine goes on to say that new coal-burning plants may be developed to utilize technology involving piping the CO2 by-product into the ground to be stored in Mother Earth's body (called "carbon capture and sequestration" or CCS, for short), rather than releasing it into the atmosphere:

"The National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan panel of 16 energy experts from industry, academia, government, and nonprofit groups, released a landmark report last December that includes carbon capture and sequestration among its key policy recommendations. 'In addition to our own domestic coal reserves, which are the largest in the world, China and India have enormous resources of low-cost coal,'says Sasha Mackler, a senior analyst with the commission. 'It's hard to imagine them not using it. Developing systems with which these countries can continue to utilize their coal, but in a way that does not increase carbon emissions, is a huge priority. Carbon capture and sequestration is the most viable pathway for that.'"

Researchers are considering what types of geologic formations are candidates for CO2 sequestration: "The most plentiful and widely distributed of these are called saline aquifers, or brine formations. 'Brine formations are found where there's the same kind of highly porous rock where you'd find oil and gas reservoirs,' says Sally Benson, head of the carbon sequestration program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. 'But there was no source of hydrocarbons in these sponge-like reservoirs, so they ended up being filled with water instead of oil or gas. The water can be up to five times saltier than seawater, because of salts that have dissolved out of the surrounding rocks. The high level of salinity suggests that these formations are isolated from sources of circulating fresh water,' and thus pose little risk of contaminating aquifers."

"The evidence collected so far in about a dozen small-scale monitoring projects around the world, Benson says, supports the viability of geologic CO2 sequestration in deep brine aquifers. 'If you have a good, isolated formation with an impermeable cap rock as a lid to keep the CO2 from escaping upward, then the gas should stay down there indefinitely. The bigger question now is, how much CO2 could you put in these brine formations? Some rough calculations done in the 1990s came up with some very large capacities -- as much as 50,000 billion tons of CO2.' That would be enough to entomb every last ounce of projected CO2 emissions for centuries."

"Europe is ahead of the United States in testing large-scale CO2 sequestration. That's because there are already mandatory restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions in most of Europe. (The European Union and several additional countries in Eastern and Western Europe ratified the Kyoto Protocol limits on greenhouse-gas emissions in 2002, and the terms of the agreement went into effect early this year.) Even before Kyoto, Norway's state-owned oil company had begun capturing about a million tons of CO2 per year from offshore petroleum platforms and injecting it into a geologic formation deep below the bed of the North Sea."

"So far, though, nobody is capturing and sequestering CO2 from an electrical power plant. In June 2005, British Petroleum and three partnering companies announced an ambitious project to change that. The partnership plans to add equipment to an existing natural-gas-fueled power plant near Peterhead, Scotland, that will convert natural gas to CO2 and hydrogen. The CO2 will be piped to a nearly depleted North Sea oil reservoir, where it will be injected 2.5 miles beneath the ocean floor for enhanced oil recovery. The hydrogen will be used as a 'decarbonized' fuel to generate electricity. When the project fires up (current plans call for a 2009 start), it's expected to capture and store around 1.4 million tons of CO2 each year and provide carbon-free electricity to the equivalent of 250,000 homes."

"Generating carbon-free electricity from coal is somewhat more complicated and expensive than the natural-gas-based process to be used in the Scottish project. But it can be done, using a combination of technologies known as integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC)."

Four IGCC coal-burning power plants exist in the world today, two in Europe and two in the U.S. The IGCC is capable of reducing sulfer dioxide (SO2) which is the main cause of acid rain, nitrogen oxides (NOX) which lead to ground-level ozone and brown haze, particulate matter, and mercury, by 90%. Astoundingly, "CO2 is not regulated as a pollutant in this country, so the (U.S.) IGCC plant(s are) not compelled to capture it. The greenhouse gas goes up the flue pipe, invisibly but surely."

Then there's the major problem of getting the coal industry to go along with the newer, cleaner coal technologies in the first place: "Kennecott Energy, the nation's third-largest coal producer, has ... acknowledged the severity of the global-warming problem... But Kennecott is an exception in the coal industry. 'The other major coal companies are staunchly opposed to anything that has to do with carbon management of any kind, under any circumstances,' says Rusty Mathews. "They're not willing to acknowledge yet that there's some writing on the wall.' Only a groundswell of public and political pressure to end the era of pulverized-coal power plants seems likely to budge the industry from its intransigence."

Even if these new technologies could be put into place world-wide, coal would still need to be mined by stripping it from the earth in huge surface mines, some causing, as Canine says, "grotesque and permanent damage" as the traditional underground mines are falling out of favor in the U.S. : "Mountain top removal, draglines, dozers, and huge dump trucks blast and scrape off summits and push the displaced earth into the valleys below. The procedure creates an eerily unrelieved, amputated landscape, filled with muddy stumps, acid mine runoff, and piles of toxic coal sludge."

Canine concludes: "Can we hand down to future generations a world that is not irreversibly compromised by a failure to accept the consequences of our choices? There may be no single answer. Ingenious ways of avoiding the worst consequences of coal combustion, such as IGCC and carbon sequestration, are necessary parts of the solution, but they are not sufficient by themselves. 'There are three big tools in the global-warming toolbox: efficiency, renewable energy, and carbon capture and storage for fossil fuels,' David Hawkins (director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council--NRDC) says. 'We need to use all of them. It will take all three to put together national and global recipes that can bring the problem of global warming under control.'"

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