Category Archives: Air pollution

Posts relating to air pollution

Oil sands buyers and sellers

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Portia describes how the quality of mercy is twice blessed: “[i]t blesseth him that gives and him that takes”.

The oil sands are like the moral opposite of mercy – it is unethical to produce them, and unethical to consume them. It is unethical for the oil companies to dig up and sell such fuels, given what we know about climate change, and it is unethical for the buyers to purchase the fuels, largely for the same reason. Both buyers and sellers are complicit in a pattern of action that sells out future generations, in exchange for profits and cheaper fuels today. They are all knowingly imposing harm upon people all over the world, either in exchange for profits or in exchange for the benefit of using cheap fossil fuels.

In time, the oil sands industry may come to be seen as much like the asbestos industry: companies that push what they know to be a dangerous and harmful product, just because it is in their self interest to do so. Even worse, the companies do everything in their power to keep their industry unregulated. They fund phoney ‘grassroots’ groups that argue that the oil sands are wonderful, they run misleading advertising campaigns, they make campaign contributions to politicians, they make misleading claims about jobs, etc.

Continuing to phase out coal

Some good news from Ontario:

Ontario is permanently shutting down two more dirty coal-fired units at Nanticoke Generating Station, ensuring cleaner air and a healthier future for families.

As of December 31, Ontario will have shut down 10 of 19 coal units and cut the use of coal by nearly 90 per cent since 2003.

By the end of 2014, Ontario will be the first jurisdiction in the world to replace dirty coal-fired generation with more sustainable alternatives such as wind, solar and bioenergy — the equivalent of taking seven million cars off the road. This is the single largest climate change initiative being undertaken in North America and will lead to savings of $4.4 billion a year in health care, environmental and financial costs.

Toxins and greenhouse gas pollution from coal

Today, Dr. Kapil Khatter wrote a good letter to The Ottawa Citizen about the many problems associated with coal-fired electricity:

The Ontario Conservatives have pledged to eliminate coal-fired power by 2014. But the coal plants need to be closed well before that. The province has more than enough coal-free power to close the plants immediately. And coal is a disaster from start to finish.

Mining the fuel devastates landscapes. When it is burned, it releases a host of poisons, including lead and mercury (neurotoxins), chromium and arsenic (carcinogens), and components of acid rain (sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides). Perhaps most worrying is its contribution to climate change: Ontario’s coal facilities emit the greenhouse gas equivalent of several million automobiles. If global warming is the world’s most pressing environmental threat, banning coal is job No. 1.

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment believes coal can be eliminated through a combination of conservation and renewable energy sources. And that the time to do it is now.

Dr. Khatter is on the board of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

CCS doesn’t make coal ‘clean’

Reporting on SaskPower’s proposed $1.24 billion project to capture and store carbon dioxide from the Boundary Dam coal power station in Saskatchewan, many news sources have described the technology as ‘clean coal’.

There is no such thing.

Even if a power plant could be built that separates 100% of the carbon dioxide from its emissions and then buries them forever, there will still be lots about coal that is far from clean. There is coal mining, which kills thousands of people a year and contaminates land and water supplies. There are the particulate emissions from coal plants, which cause many human deaths. There are other toxic emissions from coal plants, including mercury, radioactive materials, and nitrogen and sulphur oxides (which cause acid rain and other problems). There is toxic coal ash that is left over after combustion, and which many countries store in sub-standard ways.

Even if climate change were not a problem, we would want the world to be moving away from toxic, dangerous, dirty coal. That said, given that countries like China and the United States have large coal reserves and that there is strong political pressure to keep burning the stuff, it does seem sensible to allow coal power companies to develop and deploy CCS technology, provided that it can be shown to be safe and effective. It is the companies and the people buying power who should pay for the deployment of such technology, however, since they are the ones who are harming everyone else with toxic and greenhouse gas pollution.

Killer coal

Fossil fuels have a negative human impact that goes over and above the climate change they cause:

“One million people a year die prematurely in China from air pollution from energy and industrial sectors,” said Stefan Hirschberg, head of safety analysis at the Paul Scherrer Institute, an engineering research center in Switzerland. More than 10,000 Americans a year die prematurely from the health effects of breathing emissions from coal-burning power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those deaths are another element that can be set against the higher cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity from sources like wind and solar.

A similar estimate on the number of deaths caused by coal in the United States was posted on this site in September 2010.

The Ultimate Roller Coaster Ride: An Abbreviated History of Fossil Fuels

This video is rather quick, and might be overwhelming to those not already somewhat familiar with the history being described. Still, it does a remarkable job of relating the history of fossil fuels in five minutes:

Readers may not agree with all of the arguments – some are certainly debatable – but it seems like a good way of pressing people to think about some of the ways fossil fuels have influenced history, and about some of the interconnected issues of today.

The video was produced by the post carbon institute. The organization has written material that expands on the video: The Post Carbon Reader – Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises. They have some pretty high-profile fellows: Bill McKibben and William Rees among them.