Tag Archives: coal and mercury polllution

Beautiful Coal and Other Maladies

President Trump hasn’t been able to bring back “beautiful, clean coal” as he promised four years ago. As mines and power plants continue to close, the question many are asking in the diminishing American coal industry is—what now?

The use of coal to generate electricity in the U.S. is expected to fall more than a third during Mr. Trump’s first term, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show, as a glut of cheap natural gas unlocked due to fracking and increasingly competitive wind and solar sources gained market share. More than half of that drop happened before the new coronavirus outbreak. That compares with a decline of about 35% in coal consumed for power generation during Mr. Obama’s eight years in office.

In 2019, the U.S. consumed more renewable energy than coal for the first time since the 1880s, federal data show…“Coal isn’t coming back. You can’t legislate it,” said Karla Kimrey , previously a vice president at Wyoming-based coal producer Cloud Peak Energy Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection last year. Domestic demand has continued to drop as utilities retire coal power plants and turn to cheap natural gas and renewables to make electricity, trends that have only accelerated as economies have slowed due to the pandemic. With less demand for power, many utilities have cut back on coal generation first, as it is generally more expensive

Meanwhile the rise of “ESG” or environmental, social and governance investing is constricting the industry’s ability to obtain capital, current and former executives say.  As major investors such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, turn away from coal over concerns about climate change, coal companies are struggling to secure the insurance they need to operate. That hurts not only companies that mine the thermal coal used to generate electricity, but also those that mine metallurgical coal to make steel.

Excerpts from Rebecca Elliott and Jonathan Randles, Trump’s Promise to Revive Coal Thwarted by Falling Demand, Cheaper Alternatives, WSJ, Sept. 17, 2020

Lead and Mercury in the Seas

The levels of lead and mercury in the sea reduce noticeably following concrete actions to limit their release, recent research at the IAEA using nuclear techniques has shown. The banning of leaded petrol and the closure of a mercury discharging plant have led to decreases in pollution levels over 10-15 years.

This is the case for lead, which when consumed by fish which is in turn eaten by people, can cause damage to the human nervous system and internal organs. Many different activities such as mining or smelting in metallurgy and the burning of coal as well as lead’s use in batteries, paint, ceramics and other everyday items can release it into the environment. The biggest source of lead pollution in the last century was related to the use of leaded petrol.

As part of efforts to develop new methods to determine the source and levels of lead pollution, researchers at the IAEA Environment Laboratories analysed sediments from the Baltic Sea and the Caribbean Sea. In mapping the pollution history in a sediment core from the Baltic coast of Germany, researchers could clearly observe that within 10 to 15 years of phasing out lead in petrol by 1996, lead pollution levels in the sea had decreased..

In addition, IAEA researchers have successfully developed methods to use lead isotope ratios to determine the source of lead pollution and assess whether it is naturally present or the result of anthropogenic activities, since natural and anthropogenic lead sources will show different isotopic fingerprints and isotope compositions….

IAEA scientists’ analysis of a dated sediment core in a Caribbean bay shows total mercury (Hg) levels rapidly decreased after the closure of a discharging plant…Mercury was used in an alkali plant there as a catalyser, and in the 1970s, high concentrations were found in water, sediments and marine organisms as a result of discharges from the plant.  Years later, after the plant had been closed, IAEA researchers showed, by analysing sediment core taken from the bay, that levels of total mercury had started to decrease.  While remnants of this pollution are still buried in the sediment, acute toxicity has been greatly reduced.

Excerpts from World Oceans Day 2018: Regulating Lead and Mercury Releases has Decreased Marine Pollution, IAEA Press Release, June 8, 2018

Boycotting Coal

Chinese coal  consumption dipped by 1.6% in 2014, despite economic growth of 7.3%. The country’s voracious appetite for steel is peaking, damping demand for coking coal. Worries about pollution mean that demand for thermal coal, as used in power stations, is slackening too. Water conservation is another concern for policymakers—on current trends coal could account for a quarter of China’s water use by 2020 and coal reserves are mainly in the most parched regions. Its coal-fired plants are running at only 54% of capacity, a 35-year low. In Beijing two big coal-fired plants closed this week; the capital’s last one will shut down next year.

Another prop to demand has been power generation in rich countries. But in America coal now struggles to compete with natural gas, which has fallen by 80% in price since 2008. Domestic coal use there peaked in 2007. European consumption soared after Germany’s hasty decision to close its nuclear-power plants. But gas and renewables are eating into that.

Coalswarm, an environmental think-tank, says in a new report that two-thirds of coal-fired power plants proposed worldwide since 2010 have been stalled or cancelled…. Overall, Europe and America have already cut coal-fired generation capacity by over a fifth in a decade. The output of American coal mines dropped to 1993 levels in 2013.

Political pressure is growing against the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Coal provides 40% of the world’s electricity. But of 1,617GW of global capacity, 75% is of the dirtiest kind…. The chimneys of all but the most modern coal plants also emit plenty of other nasties. Mercury emissions stunt young brains. Sulphur and nitrous oxides scald lungs. Overall, coal kills around 800,000 people a year, most of them poor. In China it is responsible for up to a sixth of the particulates most dangerous for human health.

In America the coal and electric-utility industries are fighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to curb emissions of CO2, mercury and other toxins contained in coal. On March 25th, 2015 the Supreme Court heard arguments by some state governments, backed by the miners and utilities, that the agency has failed duly to consider the cost of its measures against mercury (see article).

Campaigners reckon 80% of the world’s coal reserves must stay in the ground if the planet is to stand a chance of keeping global warming under 2ºC by 2050. A divestment movement akin to the apartheid-era campaign to boycott South Africa is under way in many universities. Stanford may dump its coal investments and Oxford University is under pressure to do likewise. The World Bank no longer invests in coal-fired plants. Last year Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund dumped its holdings in more than 50 coal companies worldwide. South Korea recently introduced a carbon cap-and-trade scheme which punishes coal….

Furthermore, in some emerging markets, India especially, demand for coal is set to continue rising—so overall global demand may not peak until at least the 2030s. This week India’s government predicted a 19% rise in the country’s coal imports in this fiscal year. But thereafter the plan is to bring in private contractors to develop India’s untapped coalfields, and then to phase out all thermal-coal imports. If so, that will be grim news for the Indonesian, Australian and South African mining firms that are supplying India at the moment.

Even though some other developing nations’ coal imports will grow in future, coal companies are having to face up to a crisis now. Some are cutting costs and getting ready for a wave of consolidation. Others are litigating and lobbying against change.

Excerpts from Coal Mining: In the Depths, Economist, Mar. 28, 2015, at 65