A little coal in my stocking.

According to the Department of Energy, the US holds more than one quarter of the world’s coal reserves, an energy amount equal or greater to all of the oil reserves known in existence.  While the first question this might bring to mind is why we aren’t powering our cars with coal, other questions also surface secondarily.  A big one would have to do with mountaintop mining.

Mountaintop mining is a process of accessing coal which involves removing the uppermost layers of a mountain (usually by blasting) to access the coal beneath it.  Successive layers are removed to access lower deposits.  It’s a cheap, easy, quick, and reasonably safe way to get coal out of the ground.  But do we really need to get this resource out of the ground that quickly?  And what are the costs of doing so?  People near Coal River Mountain seem to think those costs might be too much.

Of course, there’s the potential environmental impact.  Coal extractors say they replant and try and regrow the landscape a bit after they are finished.  Critics say any real regrowth will take years, if not decades.  I say, you had a wooded mountain with valleys, and now you have a big flat space with grasses and maybe shrubs.  I don’t know what true impact that may entail, but it’s definitely a big change, even if the same exact types of trees grow back and the wildlife is not disturbed.

Second, there’s the local economic impact.  Sure, coal mining has been improving to an extent that great heaping swaths of it are technologically powered, rather than man-powered, but it still takes some people to run equipment.  Mountaintop mining takes less manpower per amount of coal extracted, which means workers have less say.  Usually it results in lower wages and fewer jobs in areas that are already economically depressed.

But it doesn’t end there.  The second largest user of coal in the world, China, is picking up our fast and dirty habits.  With the economy booming and the subsequent demand for electric power exploding, it is estimated that 3 or 4 plants powered by coal are revving up every week.  That means plants are almost instantly rivalling each other for supply.

Though each of these plants has to meet certain environmental safe practices enforced by the national government, pollution is still exploding as fast as power.  Why?  A recent study shows it may be due to the use of low-grade coal when price and availability make it the only feasible option.  The study also claims that with government incentives and other cost-saving mechanisms, each plant would be able to reduce its noxious output without a loss of power supply.  In particular, since the controls on what each plant builds were already in place, most have the air scrubbers and other pollution-reducing devices in place – they just aren’t yet being used.

But let’s throw a little political maneuvering into the picture.  The ‘higher grade’ coal (anthracite) which burns with less sulphur is only available in certain areas of China.  That means if it’s not close to you, add the cost of shipping to the already higher cost of the higher-grade coal.  But those certain areas happen to be in the ‘northwest’ regions of China.  i don’t know exactly which regions, as anything west of Beijing is considered a ‘western region’, but it does put Xinjiang in mind.  It does make me think of rebellion, resistance, historical oppression, poverty, and differing belief systems.  It makes me wonder if others realize what might happen in an area like this had a resource that would fetch a high price.

Oh, and since this didn’t get published quite when i wanted heres a political update on clean coal.

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