By Llewellyn King
Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, says coal in 2016 will again be the world’s favorite carbon fuel, pushing out petroleum as the world's largest source of energy.
This may seem especially surprising at a time when the use of coal in the United States is in decline, edged out by cheap natural gas and increasingly strict regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet a rising tonnage of coal is being used for electric generation worldwide.
The Third World is hungry for coal, as it increases electricity production. In the developed world, nuclear setbacks -- most notably the aftereffects of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant accident, when a tsunami wave knocked out six reactors -- have helped boost the commitment to coal. The accident has forced the Japanese to burn more coal and the Germans to begin phasing out their nuclear power plants. Other European countries are dithering, and the cost of building nuclear plants is rising.
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If you do not have an abundance of natural gas, as here in the United States, then coal is your default choice. It is shipped around the world in larger and larger quantities. The more the world has resisted the burning of coal, the more it has had to fall back on it. Alternative energy, attractive in theory, is yet to make its mark.
Because coal has always had an environmental price, it has always been under attack, and at the same time it has proven stubbornly hard to replace. King Edward I of England, who reigned from 1239 to 1307, was the first known major opponent of coal. He banned it in 1306.
Tales of why he did this vary. One story goes that his mother, Queen Eleanor of Provence, when staying at Nottingham Castle, was so affected by the coal fumes from the town that she had to move out.
Wood was hard to come by in towns, and it does not heat like coal. Anyway England was a cold place and wood was in short supply, so the ban was not very effective, despite the fact that the death penalty was standard for disobeying royal orders.
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Two and a half centuries later, Queen Elizabeth I tried to ban coal with not much effect. The prospect of a coal ban was even more draconian then as her father, Henry VIII, had largely denuded the English forests to build his navy and she was even more committed to sea power.
With the invention of the steam engine in the early 1700s (ironically, it was originally intended to pump water out of coal mines), the supremacy of coal for was guaranteed. It led directly to the Industrial Revolution and coal’s preeminence as the fuel of the Industrial Age. There was a price in mine disasters, mine fires that burn for decades, and air pollution. But there were also huge benefits.
Britain led the way both in the use of coal and its environmental costs. An industrial area in the Midlands was known as the “Black Country.”
London fog was assumed to be just that, fog, but it was smog. The smog was so bad that I can recall, in the winter of 1962, walking in the streets holding hands with strangers because you could not see where you were going. So-called smokeless fuel – usually a kind of coke or other high- carbon fuel -- ended that, and fog in London is now no worse than it is elsewhere.
“Clean coal” has been the rallying call of the industry for 30 or more years -- and coal is getting a lot cleaner in its preparation, combustion and mining. The trick in combustion is higher temperatures and pressures, described as supercritical and ultra-supercritical, a technology China has embraced that increases the efficiency of coal, from a historical 28 percent to around 50 percent with concomitant reductions in the greenhouse gas per kilowatt.
Mining, too, has gotten safer in the developed world with stricter regulation and better equipment. Quinn of the National Mining Association says that reclamation after strip mining is better than it ever has been. Yet the scars remain from an earlier time across all the coal- producing states.
If, like Edward I, Elizabeth I and the EPA, we cannot stop coal use, we better get behind the technologies and regulations that reduce its impact, because King Coal looks set for a long, long reign.