Research must be rushed to reduce coal's dangerous side-effects

Jul 13, 2002 02:00 AM

Britain's Economist magazine says it's obvious that much of the world -- especially underdeveloped nations -- will continue burning coal, so research must be rushed to reduce coal's dangerous side-effects. "In poor countries, where inefficient power stations, sooty coal boilers and bad ventilation are the norm, air pollution is one of the leading preventable causes of death," the business journal says in a July 4 special report. Further, coal is the chief source of airborne carbon dioxide, the foremost "greenhouse gas" blamed for global warming.
"From Athens to Beijing, the impact of fine particles released by the combustion of fossil fuels, and especially coal, is among today's biggest public health concerns," it says.

However, coal burning is sure to continue, because supplies are enormous.
"There is so much cheap coal, distributed all over the world, that poor countries are bound to burn it" as they pursue industrial growth, it says. Therefore, the phrase "clean coal" must "become more than just an amusing oxymoron," the magazine concludes. Better methods must be found to curb the soot and CO2 pollution.

The Economist says CO2 can be "scrubbed" by passing coal fumes over chemicals that capture it. Then the gas must be "sequestered" -- stored by dissolving it into seawater or pumping it into depleted underground natural gas chambers. Better, the magazine says, a process called "steam reformation" can change coal into a "synthesis gas" composed of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which produces cleaner energy. Moreover, the hydrogen eventually may be used in fuel cells, which make no pollution at all.
"The dream of cleaner energy will never be realized as long as the balance is tilted toward dirty technologies," The Economist says. Governments must end subsidies that encourage dirty burning of fossil fuels, and instead increase subsidies and other incentives to develop low-carbon technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells.

A "carbon tax" should be instituted, so the price of coal and other fossil fuels will more accurately reflect their environmental and health costs. "The harm done to human health and the environment from burning fossil fuels is not reflected in the price of those fuels, especially coal, in most countries," it says. The Economist is hardly a radical magazine. And these are hardly radical ideas, although they may sound like it in West Virginia, where coal is still indisputably king, in political influence if not economic.
But the facts are clear. Pollution from coal and other fossil fuels will cause worse health consequences as developing countries use more energy, and the threat of global warming looms over the planet. Catastrophic climate change could ruin food supplies, increase disease, make many parts of the globe uninhabitable and lead to increasingly severe hurricanes, tornadoes and other severe weather events.

The move from dirty burning to cleaner energy won't happen as long as the price of oil, gas and coal remains artificially low. Unless the true costs are reflected in prices, old techniques will have an insurmountable advantage over new, developing energy technology. The world should take these suggestions seriously, and begin action to make clean coal "more than just an amusing oxymoron."

Source: Charleston Gazette
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