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writing for godot

The Coming Age of Coal

Written by Thomas Magstadt   
Wednesday, 06 November 2013 04:22
In an aggressive move to impose President Obama’s environmental policies overseas, the Treasury Department on Tuesday largely declared an end to United States support for new coal-fired power plants around the world. The decision means that Mr. Obama’s administration will no longer contribute to coal projects financed by the World Bank and other international development banks.

Michael D. Shear, The New York Times, October 29, 2013

Coal is pervasive in our society and economy. It has a huge impact on our lives. As a nation and a species, we will either wean ourselves away from coal-dependence in time to ameliorate the consequences of human follies past and present or we will bring upon ourselves far greater suffering in the future.

Planet Earth's most plentiful fossil fuel, coal has been used for heating since the cave man. Coal powered the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. In the mid-20th century, many homes were still heated with coal-burning stoves and furnaces.

Anybody who remembers that time, who has ever had a close encounter with coal, knows that there's no such thing as clean coal. All coal is dirty – the only question is, how dirty.

Most people today have never used coal directly, never had a coal truck empty its contents into a corner of the basement. Out of sight, out of mind. Like the military, it's big and ubiquitous, but largely invisible. Hence, the illusion that coal is on the way out.
Here are a few historical facts and stats that provide a framework for deciding what is to be done. The facts are self-explanatory; the implications are self-evident.

Oil Wells

The first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859 by Edwin Drake, who started the modern oil industry. It was called "Drake's Folly". Drake never patented the idea and lived on a meager pension until his death in 1880. The first gas-power car was still several decades from being invented. NO CARS IN 1859!


In 1879, when Thomas Alva Edison invented a carbon filament that burned for forty hours. Edison placed his filament in an oxygenless bulb, there were NO coal-fired power plants in existence. NONE!


In 1893, the first running, gasoline-powered American car was built and road-tested by the Duryea brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts. ONE CAR IN 1893!


One birth every 8 seconds, one death every 12 seconds, net gain = one person ever 14 seconds; reaching 10.85 billion at the end of the 21st century. In the 1880s, when the first coal-fired power plants were built in the 1880s, world population was 1.5 billion.


The world surpassed the one billion milestone in 2011; 60 million new cars roll off assembly lines every year; the number of cars in 30 years.


Coal will overtake oil as the world's main source of energy by 2020. There are more than 620 in China alone. China , India, are other populous countries are heavily dependent on coal for heat and light. China’s annual consumption exceeded one billion tons in late 1980s and is now four times that amount – 4 billion tons ; China gets about 70% of its energy from the fossil fuel. Also, much of the coal burned in these countries is lignite: a relatively cheap, low-quality, high sulfur, "dirty" fuel source.

Plans are currently underway to ship "brown coal" too dirty to burn from the southwestern corner of Montana to China. "In a state with a population of roughly 1 million," writes Rick Bass, "the fate or future of 7 billion – and all who come afterward – rests.":

A rail line – the Tongue River Railroad, funded in part by Warren Buffett – is being proposed to ferry the coal in open boxcars miles long, from Otter Creek to older, existing rail lines. Cattle ranches that have been in families for generations will be taken by eminent domain…

Mr. Buffett’s coal train – countless chains of mile-long open-topped boxcars trundling steadfastly across the West and then the Pacific Northwest to their ports in Washington, and then to Asia, with the trains’ black dust swirling through one community after another, boxcars clanking at all hours of the night at decibels beyond the limits of any ordinance, yet immune to such laws – will result in increased respiratory ailments and other illnesses, and guarantee the rising of sea levels to the point that we could see as many as a billion environmental refugees in our lifetime…

"If you could speak out against a slow-motion train wreck, you would, wouldn’t you?"

The EPA is currently holding a series of "public listening sessions" on reducing carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants. The first meetings have taken place in Atlanta, Denver, New York City, and Lenexa, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City); others are slated for Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

This writer recently attended the session in Lenexa, Kansas. Over 400 people showed up on an overcast Monday afternoon. The great majority in this conservative, staunchly Republican part of the country were foursquare IN FAVOR of tough EPA standards on carbon emissions. With few exceptions, speakers on the side of the coal and power industries were representatives of mining, public utilities, and the Boilermakers Local Union 93. Senator Pat Roberts resorted to a common scare tactic: a "war on coal" will lead to rising electricity prices for Kansans.

What's CLEARLY needed is a set of policies congruent with the facts. All relevant science points to a slow-motion cosmic train wreck, an endless procession of coal cars destined for power plants that at worst lethally pollute, and, at best, only postpone the inevitable day of reckoning.

Given the powerful interests arrayed against efforts to save the planet, the EPA and Congress, among others, need to hear from the "attentive public". In a word, US. your social media marketing partner
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