Should Americans Be Rooting For Increased Dependence on Coal Consumption?
I enjoy watching the Olympics and marveling at just how fast, strong, and graceful humans can train their bodies to be. I enjoy watching sports that are almost completely foreign to me and thinking about the time, effort and passion that people invest to be great at those sports. It is impressive to know that they make that investment in being great at something even when the only opportunity that they will ever have to perform in front of a large audience comes once every four years and it may last only a few seconds. And, I have to admit that I feel a strong affinity for American athletes and enjoy watching them earn medals. I am pretty sure I am not alone in tending to favor participants from my home country.
That is one reason why I think that the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) has made a brilliant marketing move by choosing to run advertisements during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Their ad campaign is also well designed and executed – it has lots of footage of hard working, patriotic Americans engaged in a mission to supply the electricity that keeps America moving. Like many of the athletes, coal industry workers often labor in obscurity; their work is not a spectator sport that gets a lot of coverage in the business press.
The ad campaign talks about all of the investments that the coal industry has made to produce ever cleaner electricity from coal, it talks about the 200 year supply of the material (at current consumption rates), and it talks about the fact that coal provides half of all electricity used in America. The intended effect is clear, while Americans are rooting for their favorites in winter sports where we are often underdogs or “also rans”, we can root for an energy choice where America is a recognized world leader; we are the world’s best endowed country when it comes to coal.
This is not the first and will not be the last ad campaign designed to portray coal as a friendly, abundant, domestic energy source that is working hard to get cleaner. It is also not the first and will not be the last to use messages that obscure some of the real downsides to burning more than a billion tons of coal every year in the United States, nearly all of which feeds electrical power generators.
Though I cheer for those hard working Americans who do the very best job they know how to do to create what is arguably the most important product in a modern economy – electricity – continuing a path of steady or increasing coal combustion is bad for America and for the rest of the world. Please understand that I am not demonizing coal; it has been an amazing boon to mankind for centuries. It is arguably responsible for the fact that there are still dense forests in the world, for much of industrialized society, and perhaps even for the abolition of slavery in developed countries.
From a geopolitical point of view, I prefer burning American coal to being dependent upon shipments of liquified natural gas or oil from unstable or despotically governed countries. However, coal comes with a large burden of external costs that come from extracting, moving, and burning more than a billion tons of material in a manner that produces billions of tons of waste products with varying degrees of toxicity.
It is time to continue the long interrupted transition to a better, more abundant, and arguably, just as American source of power, nuclear fission. As I watch the commercials in the context of Olympic competition and almost hear the patriotic music playing in the background, I think about the efforts that the coal industry has undertaken over the years to handicap an energy source that started out as its American teammate.
Nuclear energy could have been welcomed as an up and coming young star whose characteristics were recognized as an improvement on its respected, but aging predecessor. The coal industry could have gracefully accepted a lesser role in American energy production and shared some helpful tips with its teammate.
Of course, graceful acceptance of a reduced role does not come easy to some athletes and it certainly did not come easy to an industry that was once one of the largest and most important industries in the country. Even though its role in American society is far less visible than it was in 1865, 1902, 1918, or during WWII, coal producers still retain a certain nostalgia for the days when they were known as King Coal. Like athletes who feel like they cannot break through in the US, nuclear energy producers have taken advantage of multiple citizenship to hone tehir skils and prosper in places where the established competitors were not as strong.
In the spirit of the Olympic competition and the coal industry advertising messages, it is time to welcome back the prodigal energy source that has been developing its skills in the international circuit. It is time for the coal industry to recognize that one of the basic parts of its message is demonstrably false; coal is not America’s most abundant fuel; uranium and thorium are. It will be Americans who build, operate and maintain the nuclear power plants that will be reducing our need to burn coal, so the appeal to patriotism as a way to accumulate loyal fans is simply misplaced.
I recently came across a document titled Coal Industry Review that was published in the Sept-Oct 1964 issue of the Financial Analysts Journal. (One of the amazing things about modern living is our ability to locate obscure documents that provide interesting bits of history.) Here are some excerpts from the “Investment Summary” of that document that provide a clear indications that the trading and financial portion of the coal industry recognized the market threat from nuclear energy at a very early stage in the technology deployment:
To these considerations must now be added nuclear power which has become a recognized competitive factor in the future electrical power generation market. As discussed subsequently, nuclear power’s initial impact (itself a few years away) is expected to be felt in areas of the country not predominantly served by the midwestern producers.
. . .
Increased competition from nuclear power will admittedly create pressures of future delivered utility coal prices, but this should be at least partially offset by the industry’s proven ability to reduce production costs through mechanization of mining equipment and continued expected transportation cost reductions.
By the end of 1964, the industry will have compiled three straight years of increased production and, for most leading companies, higher earnings; and prospects for further growth at least over the next few years appear to be clearly stronger than has been the case until the fairly recent past. Coal stocks, however, have performed relatively poorly so far this year in contrast to a sharp rise in 1963. (For example, the Standard and Poor’s Index of Bituminous Coal Stocks is currently about 4% below its year-end 1963 level.) Reasons for this probably include: the so-called breakthrough in nuclear power costs as a result of the Oyster Creek announcement. . .
Initial concern over the Oyster Creek nuclear generating plant many now have subsided somewhat. Nevertheless, the threat of nuclear power will probably remain a definite investment consideration from now on.
PS: I also want to provide you with a link to a 1991 New York Times article by Matthew Wald titled Pro-Coal Ad Campaign Disputes Warming Idea. It is interesting to read that article nearly 20 years after it was published and think about the way that energy history has unfolded in ways that were not predictable then.
I like your idea that thorium and uranium are more abundant fuels than coal. I’m sure this is on a BTU or kWh basis, but what are the numbers?
PS Google AdSense displays “Retire VT Yankee on Time” at the bottom.
… but luckily the antinukes have problems. Here’s what clicking on the VT Yankee ad displays…
This webpage is not available.
The webpage at http://www.notsafenottrustworthy.org/ might be temporarily down or it may have moved permanently to a new web address.
It is interesting to follow the future projections of the pros at DOE EIA regarding the world
Jim – 1. One problem with the large nuclear plant is cost overruns. Look at San Antonio, TX. In the opinion of the experts here, is there any way to get those costs under control?
2. What could the Fed do to speed up licensing and evaluation of new designs?
3. Small nukes could solve a lot of cost problems since they could be built and tested in a factory. What needs to be done to get those on the road?
The 1964 date is interesting. The new, less militant leadership of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had acquiesced beginning in 1953 in the mechanization of coal mining. Prior to this period, there were 500,000 to 1,000,000 coal miners in the US, the overwhelming majority in the militant UMWA. So employment dropped by an exponential factor to about 160,000 miners. All mining in the US was underground mining at this time with no ‘Mountain Top Removal’ or open pit mining yet. Wyoming was where the buffalo roamed and coal was stuff you put on the roads when it snowed.
Look at what the coal miners union did to Marble Hill. Unit 1 @95% & Unit 2 @85%. Google the site for an aerial view now, all of those dirt spots had buildings. Those two things north of the containment buildings are the turbine pedestals. After looking at Marble Hill ,zoom out and look at where I-75 goes, to the north. Word is that GM would have built the Saturn plant in southern Indiana IF they had enough electricity. Indiana didn’t, TVA did. I guess we can now say they are lucky it didn’t get built.
How many jobs would be created if the rest of the stimulus was spent on a TVA like nuclear power station project? $500 billion / 5 billion = 100 and thousands of jobs to build and operate. And since half of the cost of a nuclear station is interest on the construction loan we could actually build 200 plants. How much CO2 does that eliminate?
And the fact that NO politician is doing, suggesting, even contemplating this type of a project speaks volumes about the CO2 Crisis. I still think the nuclear carrot in the energy bill is to get enough republicans behind the bill to pass it, and the cutback at the NRC lets you know what the NRC thinks will happen afterwards.
Bob, the Retire VT Yankee on time adsense link went to the VPIRG page with the picture of the cooling tower. It must have been down temporarily. Meredith
“CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term
consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for
high crimes against humanity and nature.”
From the testimony of James Hansen to the House Select Committee On Energy Independence And Global Warming, June 24, 2008. http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TwentyYearsLater_20080623.pdf
James Hansen has observed, and been acutely interested in, the lobbying activity and disinformation campaigns of the fossil fuel energy companies ever since the time in 1988 when he testified to Congress that he was 99% certain that global warming was happening and should be dealt with.
Its similar to what happened with the tobacco companies. Big tobacco was successful for decades even as their products killed millions of people. The companies were eventually convicted of knowingly selling harmful products.
The stakes are higher with fossil fuels, particularly in the US. US politics around this issue can be put into a better context if it is understood that not only is the US the largest per capita consumer of fossil fuels, but it is the world’s largest producer, if you take into account its total production of coal, oil, and natural gas.
The power of an industry that large is what is stopping the US from pricing carbon emissions even as scientists increasingly warn we may be passing the point of no return. The main problem is that unlike in the tobacco case where you can delay taking action and let them kill millions of people, if you don’t mind that sort of thing, there is only one planet.
The standard of proof that, for instance, allowed US blood bankers to refuse Atlanta Center for Disease Control calls that they test blood destined for transfusion for disordered immune system indicators pre AIDS test availability because the blood bankers knew a court could not convict them even as they what the head epidemiologist on the AIDS file in Atlanta at the time called knowingly killed people they sold transfusion blood to is not applicable if you only have the one planet and the proof is a dead one.
Geoengineering has emerged from the shadows as a respectable science as many scientists have despaired that this political logjam can be broken and are actively researching emergency measures that they liken to cutting off your leg to save your life if you have gangrene, such as injecting the stratosphere with sulphur to reflect some of the solar radiation away from the planetary system before it can warm the planet.
It is becoming mainstream to believe, or fear, that only when catastrophe arrives will it become politically possible to do anything, and many believe that such drastic geoengineering methods will be required then by civilization, in extremis, to attempt to buy time to address the problem directly by decarbonizing the global economy.
For instance, see The House Committee on Science and Technolog, which is currently having hearings with world experts on geoengineering. http://science.house.gov/publications/hearings_markups_details.aspx?newsid=2722
You know, you guys should forget Hansen and getting the government to subsidize nuclear power. I am 100% for more nuclear power plants, but I’m not a “big government” kind of guy. In fact, the Fed has already burned through so much money that we will be very lucky if we don’t get a round of hyper-inflation. However, here is something that might actually give nuclear power a big boost:
PS the wildest the “clean coal” commercials got in my memory was the aborted “clean coal carollers” campaign. It lasted about one week before the coal companies realized it was going to be counterproductive and it was pulled.
The “FutureGen” project in Illinois was supposed to be the full scale demo of this technology, but under Bush jr., the project just became a front subject to endless delay that was eventually cancelled. The all talk no build just fund more commercials saying its on the way campaign Big Coal has been putting on for all these years caused Al Gore and the Rainforest Action Network et al to fund a “there is no such thing as clean coal” campaign, which also distorts the truth.
Meanwhile, Stephen Chu is saying even if we in the US abandon coal, India and China won’t, and he is pursuing ways to actually develop the technology, because, as he wrote in this guest editorial published in Science, 25 Sept 2009, “the climate problem compels us to act with fierce urgency”.
Just because he supports research into continued coal use does not make Chu less supportive of nuclear. Consider is remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing.
“there is certainly a changing mood in the country because nuclear is carbon free… …we should look at it with new eyes”
David Lewis wrote:
Just because he (Stephen Chu) supports research into continued coal use does not make Chu less supportive of nuclear. Consider is remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing.
“there is certainly a changing mood in the country because nuclear is carbon free… …we should look at it with new eyes”
If “looking at it with new eyes” were actually doing and building, we would all be living in castles. I will believe it when I see more funding and staffing for the NRC, the approval process expedited, innovative reactor designs quickly reviewed at a reasonable cost, and the focus is on real, significant safety issues.
I studied Chu to some extent around the time he was appointed to head the DOE and had to appear before the Senate at a confirmation hearing. I became enthusiastic because it is clear that doing something about the climate change issue is what motivated him to get out of scientific research and into this type of a role. I’ve been interested in seeing action on climate for more than twenty years. I have only recently become pro nuclear.
I didn’t assess Chu from the point of view of trying to figure out if a primary concern of his was nuclear. I noticed that he is not anti nuclear and it seems to me he is very pro nuclear, which seemed interesting, given the polling that shows the Democratic Party as very anti nuclear.
Chu chaired the InterAcademy Council (which represents “the world’s science academies”) panel that came up with the “Lighting the Way” report on how to supply energy to civilization given climate concerns, that has a section on nuclear. I took this to be approximately what Chu hmself believes.
Thereport is online. One prominent “needed action” listed was that the U.N. “should commission
Thanks for the linnks, David. I’m still checking them out. Is there analysis that supports the individual subheadings? Such as: Replace the current fleet of aging reactors with plants that incorporate improved intrinsic (passive) safety features.
Thanks again – I figured out how to download the entire report.
Don’t worry Commander Adams. Soon even Powder River Basin coal will be too costly to use for electric power generation considering the grades and fuel value are declining while overburden is increasing. Also there is competition from many east Asian countries for coal in electric power generation. The only promising field for coal is microbial methane production from coals, kerogens, depleted heavy oils etc.
That is the future of coal. In the form of natural gas. There are many carbon reservoirs that can thus be tapped for natural gas production. And we could also produce uranium and perhaps thorium from bacterial absorption thanks to radioactive waste research done at ORNL:
There is already a Canadian company that is recovering uranium from coal ashes along with Germanium which is essential in most optical components
And Cameco will soon be able to recover uranium and perhaps some heavy rare earths from phosphoric acid streams while producing fertilizer in a partnership with Uranium Equities
Then again natural gas will become increasingly more expensive since the rate of production from unconventional resources like these will be lower. The prices of hydrocarbons will get to the point that people will mainly use them for chemical production.
Even if uranium and thorium prices shoot up to over $500/pound equivalent oxides you will only see further exploration. There is already talk among many geochemists that the true crustal abundance of thorium is somewhere around 20-24 ppm. The market will soon make coal consumption unfathomable.
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