Good King Coal
Dec 13, 1993
by Russell Seitz
IN JUST over two centuries coal has descended from being the lifeblood of the Industrial Revolution to the environmental movement's foremost bugbear. But the world's cheapest and most abundant fossil fuel should not be allowed to come under the guns of carbon taxation without a little representation beforehand.
The glittering anthracite prized by the railways until recent decades was and remains a villain of the darkest hue smokeless and therefore apparently clean, but actually carbon dioxide incarnate, the harbinger of global warming. Anthracite is distinguished by a dearth of hydrogen, the abundance of which in natural gas is what commends the latter mightily to the environmentalists. For the heat from burning hydrogen is accompanied not by carbon dioxide, but by innocuous water vapor.
Yet curiously, almost no one advocating carbon taxes has noted that there is more hydrogen locked up in the hydrocarbon content of bituminous coals than in all the world's oil and gas combined. The best of these high-hydrogen coals contain in excess of three hydrogen atoms for every four of carbon--a distinction important enough to make possible a roughly 5 per cent reduction in global [CO.sub.2] emissions without any reduction in the amount of thermal energy derived from the coal. Such high-volatile bituminous and sub-bituminous coals are as abundant as anthracite is rare their reserves are reckoned in trillions of tons.
But the anthraxophobes have three other arrows in their quiver--sulphur, ash, and toxic metals. Some coals are burdened with all three, while others are all but free of them. Sulphur, the previous enemy number one, was laid low a decade ago by the mandated retrofitting of scrubbers to every powerplant smokestack. Most environmentalists were too busy celebrating that victory to note that the retrofit was typically accompanied by a reduction in thermodynamic efficiency that added 10 per cent to the [CO.sub.2] emitted per kilowatt hour.
Today, enjoined to reduce sulphur emissions by 90 per cent, regardless of their starting point, power plants are being denied the opportunity to reduce both their [CO.sub.2] and sulphur emissions by burning a newly discovered class of coals so clean that they do not need sulphur control. Billion-ton reserves of a new benchmark coal very high in hydrogen and startlingly low in sulphur, metals, and ash have recently been found in Indonesia. Its analysis reads like a wish-list from the Green Party. Similar deposits are avidly sought elsewhere in the tropics.
We hold no brief for strip-mining Central Europe or subsidizing the antique collieries of Wales and the Ruhr. But international free trade, by moving the best coals globally, can contribute to reducing not just environmental burdens, but the crippling effect on economic development suffered by those nations hard pressed to pay for oil. To thoughtful conservationists the worst of all possible worlds is the one in which underdeveloped nations, denied access to coal by carbon taxes, can afford only enough petroleum to run their chain saws. In a more enlightened regulatory environment, the pursuit of environmental quality via the carrot of a hydrogen-promoting rebate rather than the big stick of punitive carbon taxes could do much to help the good coals drive the bad out of circulation.