Black Magic, continued

Geologic time is another kind of magic. Who can conceive of those extraordinary spans of time? It takes a little over three years to equal 100 million seconds in our everyday existence. Three years worth of seconds is hard to grasp. Now think of those seconds as years. Can you imagine 100 million years? Maybe not, but that’s what the geologists ask of us. When they talk about the Rocky Mountains they tell us that they started growing 70 or 80 million years ago, an event they call the Laramide orogeny. This was after a time when present-day Wyoming was at the bottom of a gigantic inland sea. This mountain-building time lasted perhaps 25 million years. Again, those numbers! The Rockies formed then were high mountains and plateaus interspersed with broad, low-lying basins. Erosion stripped much of it away, and glaciation—very recent—carved the landscape we see today. The marine deposits of the ancient seaway created much of the oil and natural gas that lie under Wyoming. Once the mountains grew, the sea retreated and the basins became inland lakes fed by rivers. The climate was sub-tropical, and many of the basins were vast swamps surrounded by forests of ferns and deciduous trees. Over time these swamps were successively inundated and then buried by sediments. Enormous peat bogs formed, some the size of small states. Bury a peat bog deep enough and long enough and you get coal. Wyoming was the beneficiary of a remarkable sequence of geologic events that created its modern mineral wealth.

wyo geol
From the USGS:

Coal, like oil, is amazing stuff. It fired the Industrial Revolution. Once it fueled all of our trains until diesel engines took over. These days it is mostly used to make electricity. According to the Energy Information Administration coal is the source of 39% of our electrical needs. But coal comes at a cost, like all fossil fuels. Coal has to be burned to make heat, the heat needed to make steam and turn a turbine. When you burn something you create waste. Coal makes a solid waste called CCR or Coal Combustion Residue. Some of it is fine material, or ash. There’s also boiler slag and the sulfur-laden materials collected from flue gas scrubbers. It’s a lot of stuff, over 100 million tons per year. Some of it can be used by the cement industry or gathered with gypsum to make things like wallboard. The rest has to be disposed of like all solid waste in landfills. Coal burning creates not only greenhouse gases but persistent air pollutants like nitrogen oxides. Not all the sulfur by-products can be scrubbed from the waste gases and those enter the atmosphere as well.

So what are we to do with this abundant and accessible resource? Obviously we are going to burn it but just as obviously we have to find ways to do it better. To those in the industry new technologies and methods can create “clean coal” which has a nice politically acceptable sound-bite ring to it. Environmentalists say such a phrase is oxymoronic, that coal cannot ever be “clean.” It’s a lot like gasoline. We know that our cars pollute but we keep driving because the costs are dispersed. That is, the impacts on the environment and on our health are spread out over the entire nation and sprinkled amongst us here and there. And we’ve seen the success of the Clean Air Act in places like Los Angeles where the air is cleaner because of the regulations and better automobile engines. It’s not like your neighbor collapses in an asthma attack when you start your car. If he did we might notice the effects of burning fossil fuels.

All extraction industries alter the landscape. That’s another cost. Mostly these things happen far from population centers so we don’t notice. And we live in an advanced country with some government oversight and opportunities for citizens to redress grievances or at least express their concerns. You can imagine the impact of fuel and mineral extraction in places where the ruling classes are insulated from the people and from the consequences of their rapaciousness.

Capitalism depends on growth. If your business isn’t growing you are failing. If we aren’t producing and consuming new products our economy tanks. If we don’t get the returns on our investments we can’t make new investments and the economy tanks some more. All of our politicians talk about growth. It’s a sacred tenet of the American way of life. We must continue to get bigger and better. We know there are limits to growth but we don’t want to hear about them. We just want to keep going. Some day, perhaps, we won’t be able to grow any more and we’ll have to figure out a new way to live. For now though we’ll keep the tanks full and keep cruising. Maybe we’ll see something on the journey that will open us up to new possibilities.

4 thoughts on “Black Magic, continued

  1. Coal is also used to produce coke, which is used for steel making, aluminum making, forging and other processes. Burning coal produces sulfur dioxide, mostly eastern coal. Western coals, higher in flyash, tend to be much lower in sulfur content. That is why acid rain is, primarily, a problem in the eastern US. It has been largely abated by the use of wet scrubbers. Oxides of nitrogen are by products of combustion – any combustion, including oil, gasoline and natural gas. They are formed from the heat of combustion reacting the nitrogen in the ambient air. Carbon monoxide is another contaminant, formed from combustion without sufficient oxygen. Unfortunately, oxides of nitrogen are formed from an excess of oxygen. Combustion of coal also releases a large amount of flyash, or particulate matter. Also unburned hydrocarbons. Finally, mercury and other toxic air contaminants, which of course vary with the specific coal that is burned. These, and the requirements to abate the emissions of these compounds, are among the reasons that electric power production has tended towards natural gas as older coal-fired units have aged.

    The combustion of coal also releases carbon dioxide, the biggest contributor to global warming. The EPA has promulgated the Clean Power Plan that is aimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants and other power generation. This is deemed the “War on Coal” by the republicans, the reason there is such strong anti-Obama sentiment in coal mining areas. It may, in fact, prevent democrats from winning states where there is a strong coal-mining industry (and maybe they wouldn’t anyway). This is a good article in the SF Chron’s Sunday Magazine by Abe Streep:

    One way to look at it is to coal is to consider it a resource that, if not exploited now, will be available to be exploited later, maybe when other parts of the world do not have energy resources to exploit. Although reading the article makes it easy to understand how uneven the distribution of costs in choosing that kind of a route are. Or, indeed, how uneven the costs are to regulate carbon emissions enough to make a significant difference in global warming. I am, of course, strongly in favor of limiting emissions of air pollutants to ensure public health, including carbon emissions. And, in fact the EPA regulations do not shut down coal power. The owners of coal power plants, however, may make an economic decision to shut their doors and invest in new technology. What then do we owe these people?


  2. I’ve been thinking about writing something on iron and steel. from mining to production, and as you say you can’t make steel without coke.

    It’s obvious we need more solar and whatnot*. The greenhouse gases, the pollution, these are significant. It’s just no one drops dead of them in front of you so the urgency isn’t there. And the coal abundance cannot be ignored. It’s just sitting there, begging to be burned. There should be some sort of economic incentive to switch to something cleaner, like gas. Talk about resources! There’s a hell of a lot of that, too. I can imagine lots of futures with improved, more sustainable energy systems. But I live in this one, right now.

    *Nuclear-powered desalinators! You could just use old submarines retired from the Navy. San Diego would be a great place to try it out. 🙂


  3. There are incentives. Air pollution control regulations have an affect on the market, even those most sensitive to existing economic investments. Burning coal requires a much greater investment than gas in pollution controls, although, as I noted above, both produce NOx. Consider that much of the eastern part of the country, not to mention Britain and Europe, had home-heating coal furnaces. And that had a profound health impact. They don’t have those anymore.

    And coal is no more begging to be burned that information wants to be free. It is a simple economic decision by whomever wants to provide power to potential customers. Build a power plant on top of a coal mine and suffer the transmission losses to your customers (see: Four Corners Generating Station)? Ship that coal via rail to your power plant? Put stationary gas turbines in cities close to customers and NIMBYs? It’s an economic decision based on, in part, the projected costs of fuel. Coal is not very expensive, but neither is natural gas. See this:

    The circled lights are flares from fracking in North Dakota, from space. That is (mostly) natural gas being burned in flares without any use of the heat energy. That is because, at the current price, it is not worth building a pipeline to transport it somewhere else.

    A wise friend of mine, way back in 2000, was of the opinion that Al Gore (remember him?) should have campaigned on the premise that America should set a goal of adopting clean and independent energy. Not a mandate, a goal, just like they had a goal of putting a man on the moon in the 1960’s. I think we should have a goal to move all electric power production to sustainable sources, and require all transit to move towards hybrid power. We can discuss and argue about how to get there, but I believe that the perils of climate change warrant such large scale thinking, and that simply “leaving oil in the ground” as a euphemism for scaling back our comfort and mobility is not going to be politically viable, even leaving aside the protestations of climate change deniers and those who profit from delays.


  4. It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about the Bakken and the gas flaring and the whole explosion of “new” American oil and how that really changed the politics. I mean I remember having these SAME CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ENERGY when I was a student at Cal in ’80 and ’81 and here we are doing it again. I was convinced then that in 30-40 years coal would have been close to being phased out, nukes more prevalent, and solar panels spreading like mold on cheese. Alas, it didn’t happen that way so I imagine what happens “next” will be equally unexpected.

    My dad use to tell us about shoveling coal into the furnace “back in the day” on cold Boston mornings, of which there were many. It’s nuts that we can’t get natural gas piped everywhere (there’s none here, for example). A far superior fuel source, to be sure.


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