By Peg Ferm
I’m just curious about coal – natural for the daughter of a coal geologist. Ironically, I also care deeply about the environment, and I know burning coal isn’t good for it. Mining coal isn’t good for it either. The current resistance to coal trains running through our towns and countryside makes perfect sense. Those trains are going to clog traffic and spew coal dust. And China has plenty of its own coal.
Why does China want our coal? I asked a coal geologist – my Dad left many former students who will answer my questions. Here’s what I learned.
First, China’s own coal is dirty coal, high-sulfur coal. When burned, it emits sulfuric acid – the source of acid rain. Our Wyoming coal is high quality, low-sulfur coal.
Second, China’s coal is found underground, which means it is difficult and dangerous to mine. China leads the world in coal mine deaths. Six workers die in Chinese mine accidents every day, according to Wikipedia. Wyoming coal is extracted from much safer surface mines.
Third, our coal is currently relatively cheap, so it makes sense economically for China to pay to ship it, and of course US companies are enjoying the profits.
China is going to burn coal, at least for the next couple decades – as will our own country. And China’s coal emissions – acid or not – are going to arrive right here on the Pacific atmospheric express, one way or the other.
Many people in China are now getting a chance to be something other than dirt poor, and they need energy to do it. They want modern kitchens, nice cars, iPhones, pretty clothes, and the leisure time to study, invent and create. Who will blame them if they don’t want to wait for “green” energy?
How do you balance all this? Would you opt for coal dust, acid rain, traffic delays, Chinese mining deaths, or a long wait in China for clean energy?
The economics of coal don’t present “clean” choices either. Flooding the market with cheap coal means an economic boost for us, now, but encourages more coal burning worldwide. But the fact that it’s cheap means more people, especially in poorer countries, can enjoy the modernization that cheap energy brings.
One more thing – China has many, many uncontrolled underground coal mine fires. There are a few of these in the US, too. Underground mine fires are extremely difficult to put out – often nearly impossible. China’s coal mine fires create approximately the same amount of carbon dioxide as the emissions from ALL personally owned US passenger vehicles. Think about that.
The enormous effort to provide us Americans with “green energy” choices is impressive. We are sold non-polluting cars, energy-efficient washing machines and light bulbs, organic T-shirts and sustainable this-and that. Someone, somewhere, is making good money selling us these products. I hope it’s making a difference to the environment.
I can only assume there isn’t much money to be made figuring out how to put out underground coal mine fires in China. I do wonder how we choose where we put our money and effort to make a difference to the environment.
Do I want coal trains blowing through Monroe? No way. Coal dust particulates drifting into our air have potential health consequences for us all. And the traffic problems here, including access to Valley General Hospital, could get really bad.
Do you believe that every good person ought to rise up in protest against the coal trains? I’m uncertain. I can’t feel too self-righteous about it. I don’t want them in my back yard. But I don’t think the issue is black and white.
Peg Ferm is a local landscape architect. You can visit her website at www.pegfermdesign.com