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Coal - Cheap Fuel Or Environmental Catastrophe?

Over recent years, as oil prices have surged exponentially, we’ve witnesses a renewed interest in coal as a readily available, reliably abundant and relatively inexpensive source of energy. These benefits have reawakened a debate over the possible revival of a fuel that was pretty much officially “dead and buried!”

Particularly interested in the outcome of this discussion is the “Coal Industry” itself, as concerns about “Peak Oil” and astronomically rising prices re-ignites serious reexamination of coal as a potential “stop gap” savior.

Theoretically, coal has several notable benefits to be considered. Coal is extremely combustible and it produces a tremendous amount of energy upon ignition. Compared to alternative sources of energy, coal is dramatically inexpensive due to exceptionally large and relatively easy to reach reserves found all around the globe. These qualities played a major role in coal serving the “Industrial Revolution” as its primary fuel powering locomotives across the great divide and generating the very first mass electricity to bring light into a previously darkened world!

Coal Power Plants


In comparison to nuclear and hydroelectric, coal power plants can be inexpensively built practically anywhere, transportation of coal is simple, inexpensive does not require the maintenance and continual upkeep of high-pressure pipelines or extensive security when in route.

Coal is also amazingly versatile and can be used for everything from barbecuing dinner to fueling a steam generator. And it’s for this reason, many energy experts predict that rising oil prices and progressively limited supply of oil reserves may well lead to more consistent reliance on coal. Coal is currently relied upon for a mere 30% of our primary energy consumption, but in a pinch, could quite easily; once again surge to over 50% of the world’s fuel supply.

Worldwide reserves of coal are estimated, based on current usage rates, to be re reliably plentiful for at least another 200 years. Coal is far less costly to extract from the earth than oil and a lot less dangerous should some mishap occur, accidentally or on purpose, in comparison to nuclear power.
Coal reserves are naturally spread far more equitably throughout the world than oil, meaning far less complications and cost distributing the fuel. It can be safely stored and quickly drawn upon in times of emergency and is not affected by weather conditions like wind or solar power.
However, coal is also a very dirty fuel offering up “less bang for your buck” per cubic unit of fuel. To try to rectify this problem the coal industry has been experimenting with a technology that is called “Gasification,” which captures and confines CO2. This Carbon Dioxide can then be injected into oil wells to improve their hydrocarbon recovery rate, as well as be used to produce hydrogen for fuel cells.

Sadly, hope, theory and experimentation does not change the fact that currently, burning coal as a fuel releases tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide, which damages the environment and is gradually depleting our ozone layer, while contributing to global warming.

Therefore, if we were to dramatically increase our reliance on coal as a viable substitute for oil, we would automatically be doubling and in some cases tripling the dangerous toxins released into our eco-system, including: Carbon Monoxide, Carbon Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxide, Mercury and Sulfur Dioxide, the cause of “Acid Rain.”

So how much of “these poisons” is “too much?” according to scientists, the mercury alone produced at the average coal plant annually would be 2,600 times the amount it would take to make any fish living in a local, “50 acre lake” absolutely unsafe for human or animal consumption.

Meanwhile, building a coal power plant kills off thousands of oxygen producing plants and trees that also feed the numerous species of living creatures that are uprooted from their home. Besides polluting the water the plant also needs to use nearly 2.5 billion gallons of water to help ensure that it runs cool and safely. That’s enough water to support 250,000 people annually.

Nature is extremely important, but what really strikes home is the human cost! The mining and burning of coal directly leads to numerous dangers and deaths associated with cave-ins, collapses, poisonings and explosions as well as such maladies as tuberculosis, black lung disease, emphysema, asthma and various circulatory and respiratory diseases, eye, ear, nose and throat irritations and skin rashes.

While the idea of Gasification sounds great, it is still a largely untested and unproven “theory” and the research, experimentation and eventual retrofits and upgrades will add billions to the cost of using coal for energy, long before we begin to see these prophesied benefits effectively come into play. Therefore we can’t allow ourselves to discount the fact that coal, just like oil, is NOT a renewable energy and is itself, in a continuous state of consistent depletion.

So the jury is still out with regards to how much we can actually come to truly rely on coal to replace oil as a primary source of energy. Even if gasification were to work as well as hoped for, could we ever really bring ourselves to revert back to coal like we did in the past and would our efforts not be better served discovering even better ways to more effectively and cleanly use oil or other advancing alternative fuel sources? One thing is for sure, only time will tell.

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