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.

Advertisements

The Predator-Prey relationship.

The history of conservation and preservation in America, especially of animal species, has been a constant teeter-totter.  First there was the competition for game resources and the hunting off of predators like wolves and coyotes.  Then there was the destruction of habitat for those game animals as well, occasionally marked by the wholesale slaughter of the animals themselves, as with the bison herds.  Of course, we realized our mistake here, and tried to ameliorate it by protecting deer and elk from hunting on certain public lands.  Then they overpopulated and started starving themselves to death, without any natural predators.  Finally, the use of chemicals in farming and industry, which had unintended consequences on a variety of species, such as the bald eagle.  Now that we’ve banned DDT, everything is hunky-dory and they’re coming back.  In each of these cases, we ‘learned our lesson’.  We are now preserving threatened predators – wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone, and more mountain lions added to the existing population to sustain it.  But finding the delicate balance between managing a population of animals, preserving something of the wilds for future generations and our own enjoyment, and complying with the needs of man and economics.

Take this recent tussle between preservationists and ranchers near Yellowstone.  On the one side, you have people sorry for the madcap (and, from all written accounts, visually disturbing) slaughter of the bison herds, and on the other you have cattle farmers trying to preserve their livelihood.  But it’s not only a case of man vs. beast.  It’s also a case of how much.  How much land should the bison be given?  They have no natural predators, and they are big animals that it takes a fair amount of pasture to feed.  Are 500 bison enough to preserve, and how much land to they realistically need?  As naturally wandering animals, they are not easily contained in one area, even an area as big as Yellowstone.  Does that mean we should go ahead and kill them off to preserve the grazing land and health of cattle?  Does it mean that we should designate ever-widening areas of preserve? Does it mean the bison should be allowed to roam free – even across private property and at the expense of others?

There are no answers to these questions, no real solutions.  As best we can manage an unsteady balance.  Bravo to the Parks Service for doing so thus far.

Consumption

Last nigh as a part of a little double date action, I took part in Boston’s 2008 ‘Restaurant Week’. I’ll get back to why I’m using quotes here shortly. Despite a really good time and way too much food, there were some issues. Two of the people in our little foursome tried out the prix fixe menu that is the whole point of restaurant week – three courses of showcase dishes for one low price. This allows those of us who are cheap to fancy up and go someplace nice, and gives the restaurants an influx of potential new customers. That’s great, and usually I’m a fan of it – I like food, especially trying new things. The problem comes when two of us didn’t like our dinners. I’m not naming names or pointing fingers when it comes to the restaurant – it could just be a matter of personal taste. And I suppose it’s good that we were an even split, with only one prix fixe main course dislike, and one from the regular full menu. So it wasn’t restaurant week that was the problem.

But it did get me going a bit, and got the ol’ brain juices flowing. Mike characterized his own decision to order from the main menu explains my shared feeling in part – if you’re going to spend that much money, better make sure it has full value. So he got a more expensive menu item with tons of pricey foods in it, and I got a prix fixe option which included the expensive appetizer my heart was set on. Still, was it really worth its value? Could we have gotten something equivalent for less someplace else? And is it morally questionable to eat someplace so snobbish, taking into account the economic, energy, and environmental costs of rarer foods?  IS there a more dastardly purpose behind the extension of “restaurant Week’ into two full weeks?

I didn’t really want to end with a question yet again, so I’ll leave you with this happy thought. Most times, I eat a little of my restaurant fare and take the rest home, always conserving. And though I did take my oyster crackers home, the rest of the three-course meal ended up in me or one of my dinner partners. I went home happy, if poorer, and nicely rotund. Yum.