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.