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Keep On Smokin’

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At the anti-coal demonstrations in Washington protesting the coal fired electric generating plant supplying the nation's capitol, little of substance was presented about our reliance on the stuff. Coal has become a latter-day villain with few defenders. We were told that big coal is a monster: that Appalachia is a wasteland, and that coal is not very clean, to put it mildly. To get a glimpse of the larger picture consider the following by Robert Bryce, author of Coal Hard Facts.

Let's look at the U.S., second only to China in terms of total coal consumption. In 2007, the U.S. used about 1.1 billion tons of coal. That’s the energy equivalent of about 4.2 billion barrels of oil per year or about 11.5 million barrels of oil per day. Here’s the key comparison: America’s daily coal ration contains more energy than Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production.

Indeed, the scale of U.S. coal consumption boggles the mind. In 2007, the amount of energy America used in the form of coal exceeded the total energy consumption — from all sources, coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear — of all of the countries of Central and South America combined. Just as important as the scale of America’s coal consumption is this fact: U.S. coal use has increased faster in recent decades than has oil or natural gas consumption. Between 1973 and 2007, U.S. coal consumption jumped by 75.5 percent. During that same time period, U.S. oil consumption increased by only 15.2 percent and natural gas consumption increased by just 5 percent.

Here’s another comparison: On a daily basis, global coal consumption is equivalent to about 63.8 million barrels of oil. Thus, replacing the world’s coal habit with something else will require finding an energy source (or sources) that can supplant the equivalent of six new Saudi Arabias. Or consider China. On an average day, its coal use is the energy equivalent of 26.3 million barrels of oil, or about two and a half Saudi Arabias.

By any measure, those are daunting numbers. U.S. and global policymakers may not like coal, but given the enormous scale of the coal business, it’s obvious that the U.S. and the rest of the world will be relying on the black fuel for many years to come."

So what will we have left if coal use is curtailed? Unfortunately, only nuclear energy can begin to duplicate those mammoth energy numbers. Not solar, not wind or wave, geothermal and certainly not our dwindling supply of petroleum and natural gas. And then if everybody switches to nukes, in only a few decades the usable uranium will be gone, and that will leave only deadly plutonium. What a dangerous future for our grandchildren that promises to be!

In the current frenzy to shut down coal burning, the details of exactly how we will keep the lights on is basically ignored. And where in the anti-coal movement is there a valid comparison of smokestack to tailpipe? Few serious students of the energy crisis believe that we will still have 150 million cars on the road in ten or twenty years. Most experts say that it can't happen, that not enough usable, portable fuel remains.

With the cars gone, will it make much difference to the environment if we have a few thousand smokestacks in this vast country compared to millions of tailpipes? Before the switch to natural gas after WWII, Dr. Allen W. Hatheway estimated that 52,000 plants manufacturing coal gas existed in the United States. Every small town and city made gas for their own use or to sell. That is in addition to countless factories, locomotives and home furnaces in use at the time. Now that's a lot of chimneys.

So don't be too quick to shut down the old smoke belcher or prevent new ones coming on board or we may end up shivering in the cold, but clean, air of a new dark age fifty years from now.

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About Robert Magill

  • Clavos

    As the GW alarmists plunge us headlong into their vision of a perfect, pollution-free world, it’s refreshing to hear a voice pointing out the realities of our available energy sources and their consumption.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Why the fuck does nobody in the United States seem to know the difference between capital and capitol?!?!?

  • Clavos

    Why the fuck does nobody in the United States seem to know the difference between capital and capitol?!?!?

    Easy answer to that one, Doc.

    They all went to gummint school.

  • Dr Dreadful

    So did I…

    …just not over here.

  • Clavos

    I didn’t. The government schools in Mexico are (or were then) even worse than their counterparts in the USA.

    About half my elementary schooling was at a British school (in Mexico City) called Greengates. It’s still there, so is a pretty good school, obviously.

  • Clavos
  • Dr Dreadful

    I see Greengates is under the auspices of the Cambridge University exam board. That explains a lot. You were lucky to go there, Clav.

    I took a couple of my final exams through Cambridge, I think (I’d have to dig out my old certificates to be sure). Their curricula, and the Oxford board’s, were slightly tougher than the University of London’s, which my high school used for most subjects.

  • Silas Kain

    Why the fuck does nobody in the United States seem to know the difference between capital and capitol?!?!?

    Because along with civics, accounting and grammar, Dread, they’ve taken spelling out of the curriculum. You see, proper spelling doesn’t fit into Twitter’s marketing strategy.

  • Silas Kain

    Come to think of it, Dread, it’s not spelling or grammar that is the issue. It is HOMONYMS. You see, Redneck states in the U.S. don’t allow homonyms to be taught in schools. It might make their kids kweer.

  • roger nowosielski

    Also because, as some argue, what used to count as elementary education is detrimental to the young minds by having them cram things rather than do what young minds are inclined to do. And what that might be, don’t ask me.

  • Silas Kain

    A young mind is a terrible thing to waste — and we’ve been wasted since 1952.

  • Cindy

    lol Silas! HOMOnyms

  • roger nowosielski

    Well, we have produced our quota, nonetheless. You’re not expecting everyone to be brilliant, I hope. That would go against the grain. Which isn’t to say that our culture is exactly most conducive to learning.

  • Silas Kain

    The ONLY thing our culture is conducive to is consumption.

  • roger nowosielski

    Well, that’s the unfortunate thing. Mass production = mass consumption = therefore idiots.
    But some have escaped. Too few, I’m afraid, to make a difference.

  • Silas Kain

    It all comes down to homonyms, Roger. In our Constitution “By the people…” has been replaced by “Buy the people…”

  • roger nowosielski

    That’s a good one.

  • Cindy


    Did I ever tell you how much I love you?

  • Silas Kain

    Aw shucks, Cindy. Every now and again I do get profound. I think.

  • Clavos

    …therefore you are…

  • STM

    Clav: “About half my elementary schooling was at a British school”.

    Ah. Now everything’s clear … you’re almost half a Pom.

    Is this what gave you a love of learning?? – because that’s how it worked in my case.

    The Poms in my experience are good at making study seem enjoyable, simply by making it all seem interesting.

    On topic, if the world keeps working to do away with coal use for power stations, this country of mine down on the edge of the Sth Pacific – which makes a mint selling both coal and coal-fired power station tecnology around the world – will have another nail banged into its coffin.

    Let’s not forget the thousands out of work, either. Surely right now that should be the main thing we’re looking at, not Kyoto and beyond.

    The little green men (and women) ARE taking over the planet.

  • STM

    Hey Clav, that nice Army titfer I sent you with a badge that has a nice Crown on it, it wasn’t the first one was it?

    I notice the Greengates badge is a Lion with a dirty great Crown on its melon, and if I knows me British schools, you’d almost certainly had to have worn a cap with the school badge on it, yes?

  • Clavos

    Yup, sure did, Stan.

    I forgot to tell Doc that the only part of Greengates I didn’t like was that they served us lentil soup a lot at lunch time, which I suppose is a very Brit dish (we never had it at home). I hated it. Still do. Had to eat it though, or risk “discipline,” don’t you know.

    We didn’t have “grades” — First grade, second grade, etc. — they were called forms.

    Elizabeth was crowned while I was at Greengates. What a great celebration we had, capped off with a film of the coronation! It was really cool.

  • STM

    Clav: Yes, we had forms too, but not in primary school. I think it was years … year 1, year 2, etc. It still is, but in modern Australia, it’s years now all the way through to year 12 high school.

    But in high school, or secondary school, for me, we were in forms: 1st form, 2nd form, etc, cotrresponding of course to the year at high school.

    AS for the lentil soup. Mate, that might have been just a cost thing, or an eccentricity of someone in charge (we know the Brits are the most eccentric of all races … “lentil soup, good for the bowels!. I had it in India and swear by it, and so it’ll do for you young whippersnappers too!”). It’s not really a popular dish in the UK, or here … unless you go to one of those free Hare Krishna restaurants.

    At my son’s boarding school, they regularly had “curried sausages” on the lunch AND dinner menu. No wonder the boys’ dorms stunk. And he still can’t look at a sausage five years later.

    It’s probaby why they were so good at rugby. Just fart in the scrum and put the other school off their game.

  • Baronius

    There’s one important point that this article missed. Coal can be clean. Coal from the South Pacific and the U.S. western states is low in sulfur. If you’re burning high-sulfur coal, the exhaust can be scrubbed to diminish pollutants. Also, unlike gasoline, coal is burned centrally, making it easier to upgrade the cleaning technology.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Right, Baronius. The trouble with coal is that it still conjures up old newsreel images of belching smokestacks and spewing Londoners being shoved into ambulances after another pea-souper gurgles across the city.

    But the technology has moved on, and it’s worth pursuing not just for that reason but because there’s a heck of a lot of it still in the ground – far more than we’re ever likely to need or use.

    I’m strongly in favour of nuclear as well.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Clav, Stan:

    When I was at school forms were more or less a thing of the past – except that in high school the group of kids you went for roll call with in the morning and after lunch – what Americans would call home room – was known as your form.

    Other than that (and it’s changed now, like so much in British education) it was first through fourth years at junior school (ages 7-11) and first through fifth years at secondary school (ages 11-16). At 16 you had the option of leaving school altogether or staying on for another two years of secondary education – which, for some obscure reason, was and is still known as the sixth form*. Eccentric Brits is right.

    * Both years of it – distinguished, if necessary, by the terms ‘Lower Sixth’ and ‘Upper Sixth’.

  • jeannie danna

    There is no such thing as, “Clean Coal.”

    There really is no such thing as, “Safe nuclear power.”

    We are all just selling, “Things.”