Category Archives: Air pollution

Posts relating to air pollution

Coal and US air pollution deaths

While climate change is the most worrisome problem associated with coal-fired power plants, they also produce large amounts of air pollution that affects human health. A new report from the non-profit Clean Air Task Force estimates that “pollution from coal-fired power plants will result in the premature death of more than 13,000 people [in the United States] this year.

That is definitely something to consider when people argue that we must keep using coal because it is the cheapest source of electricity available. It may be cheap per kilowatt-hour, but it is very costly in other ways.

Export ethics: asbestos and coal

Controversially, Canada is a major producer and exporter of asbestos – a material that has been judged too dangerous for domestic use, but which the government and Canadian firms apparently feels to be good enough for developing countries. At the same time as the Government of Canada was paying to promote asbestos sales abroad, workers in hazmat suits were carefully removing the material from our Parliament buildings. Driven largely by concerns about a small number of jobs in Quebec, Canada remains an asbestos booster, still willing to fund the Chrysotile Institute.

This raises a question that is profoundly related to the problem of coal: what is the ethical position of states with large reserves of a dangerous resource, for which there is a market overseas?

Equal treatment

Naturally, there are several different approaches that can be taken in evaluating this ethical question. One is to focus on some notion of equal treatment. If we think asbestos is too dangerous for Canadians, why is it OK to sell to Indians. Does it matter that they are buying it voluntarily? In a related question, does it matter that they have less ability to afford safer alternatives? One can certainly argue that Canada should not be willing to expose the citizens of other countries to dangers we would consider unacceptable here. In a counter-argument, it is possible to argue that depriving the recipient countries of asbestos would make them even worse off than they are now, by forcing the use of something even worse.

Cost-benefit considerations

Another approach is more economically inspired. One way of phrasing it would be: “Is absolutely everybody better off, in a situation where Canada chooses to export asbestos?” When allowing something to occur, such as a trade, improves the welfare of at least some people involved without harming that of anybody, economists say that the trade is a Pareto improvement. This is often a high bar, and certainly isn’t met in the asbestos case. At least some people in the recipient countries will get sick and die as a consequence of this international trade in asbestos.

A less rigorous standard is called ‘potential Pareto optimality’ or Kaldor–Hicks efficiency. In this approach, you tally up all the costs and benefits associated with a decision. If the sum of the benefits is large enough that the winners could theoretically compensate the losers, then there is a certain sense in which making that choice could be justified.

There are a number of serious problems with Kaldor–Hicks, however. Firstly, there is no requirement that compensation actually be paid. That means that some people will suffer for the enrichment of others, and without giving consent to the arrangement. Secondly, there is the ever-tricky question of deciding what human health and lives are worth. In most economic analyses, the value of an Indian life is implicitly rated lower than that of a Canadian life, because governments and individuals are able to spend more to defend the latter than the former.

What about coal?

Some states – like China and the United States – both produce and use a massive amount of coal. Some, like Canada and Australia, are exporters on an enormous scale. The coal dug up in Canada, sold overseas, and burned causes harm to an enormous number of people. Some, like the Canadian coal miners, take on the risks in a relatively voluntary way. Others, like the members of future generations threatened by climate change, are completely vulnerable to the choices we make on their behalf. Other groups that are harmed include those who suffer from the air and water pollution that accompanies coal burning.

Eventually, I think it will be generally recognized that digging up coal for export is not ethical. It allows those who are alive today to enrich themselves, while forcing the associated risks onto innocent members of future generations. The path to a coal-free world will be a very difficult one, not least because of the massive investments that rely on the continued burning of the stuff. Achieving that outcome will require voluntary restraint, restrictions on coal burning imposed on companies and individuals by the state, and quite possibly the conscientious refusal of some states to sell the climate-wrecking stuff, even when there are still ready buyers internationally.

Oil sands toxins increasing

New data from Environment Canada shows some of the harmful non-climate impacts from the continued exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands:

In the past four years, the volume of arsenic and lead produced and deposited in tailings ponds by the country’s bitumen mines – run by Syncrude Canada Ltd., Suncor Energy Inc., SU-T Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. CNQ-T and Royal Dutch Shell PLC RDS.B-N – has increased by 26 per cent. Quantities of some other substances have increased at even faster rates.

The companies also released huge amounts of pollutants into the air last year, including 70,658 tonnes of volatile organic compounds, which can damage the function of human organs and nervous systems, and 111,661 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, a key contributor to acid rain.

These are some of the things that are ignored when politicians highlight the jobs and wealth produced by oil sands operations.

The illusion of profit

In Europe, thieves sometimes steal slabs of lead that have been used as roofing material on buildings like churches. When they do so, it is obvious that the act causes net economic losses for society. The thieves get the scrap metal value of the lead (minus their expenses) while the church needs to pay the cost of replacement lead, the price of installation, and any damages arising directly from the robbery or from their subsequent lack of a roof.

When climate change is taken into account, fossil fuel extraction has a similar dynamic to such robberies. The profits of oil, gas, and coal companies are large and immediately visible, but the wider costs to society still exceed them. They include everything from the people sickened and killed by air pollution to the land and species that will be lost to climate change.

The general public still seems to be a long way off from recognizing this. No doubt, that is partly on account of how they recognize the many useful and pleasant things fossil fuels allow us to do. Ultimately, moving beyond fossil fuels is a choice primarily motivated by concern for future generations. They are the ones who will need to deal with the downpour, after we have stripped away the roof.

Coal: A Human History

Barbara Freese’s Coal: A Human History provides a concise account of the interactions between humanity and coal, particularly in the United States, United Kingdom, and China. It includes a great many interesting anecdotes, as well as some good analysis of the social, health, and environmental consequences of coal use. In particular, it leaves the reader with a strong sense of the health costs associated with air pollution from coal, even before you start considering its impact on climate.

Freese identifies the forces that drove coal from a mineral of very peripheral importance to a substance that ended up at the heart of industrialization, powering the Industrial Revolution and being burned now in unprecedented quantities, mostly to generate electricity. She points out the importance of population density, wood scarcity, and the improved efficiency of steam engines in prompting the explosion of coal use. She also discusses the suffering associated with coal mining and use, the connections between the industry and industrial relations and organized crime, and the possible future of coal and energy generally.

Ironically, one of the key messages from the book is that coal – gritty, filthy coal – is actually largely invisible now. London’s deadly coal fogs are a thing of the past, and yet coal-fired power plants around the world continue to emit huge amounts of lethal pollution, accounting for tens of thousands of annual deaths in North America and perhaps a million in China. And yet, because the mechanism of this harm is invisible, there is no real public outcry to stop it. Thankfully, reduced suffering and death from air pollution is one of the major co-benefits that will accompany climate change mitigation, once nations finally start getting serious about it.

Climate change is essentially taken as a given in this short book, with some reference made to the possibility of abrupt and dangerous climate change, driven by reckless burning of fossil fuels. Freese is probably correct to treat carbon capture and storage (CCS) dismissively. Significant practical and economic hurdles stand in its way, and it is entirely plausible that it will prove quicker and cheaper to just deploy zero-carbon sources of energy, rather than refit fossil fuel fired power plants so as not to emit greenhouse gases.

One minor cause for complaint is the awkward binding of the hardcover edition. This small thin book just doesn’t want to stay open, and will clasp shut unless constantly held with the covers spread. The book’s treatment of hydrogen as a possible future energy storage medium is also thin and probably overly optimistic.

Those hoping to gain a broader historical perspective on the emergence of coal as an important energy source, the consequences of its use, and the present and future of the material will likely find this book informative, accessible, and useful.

Don’t Ignite the Lignite

Quite unintentionally, deficiencies in the quality of my video camera and the lighting of the establishment where this was filmed have made this video more anonymous than I planned. It has a bit of a ‘witness protection program’ vibe. My apologies about the annoying feedback in the audio.

At the same time, it lays out my current views on climate change and how to deal with it in just five minutes:

Obviously, it requires many simplifications to put that amount of information into a five minute movie. Even so, I think it is a fair reflection of my current thoughts, at least insofar as I would format them for an event of this type.

It would be very interesting to know what I am wrong about.

It would also be interesting to know which (if any) messages seem to be well conveyed.

The slides and speaking notes are also available:

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining: An American Tragedy

Mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining is one of America’s worst environmental crimes. Every day, across Appalachia, the coal industry literally blows the tops off the mountains: clear-cutting forests, wiping out natural habitats and poisoning rivers and drinking water. Not only are these mountains lost forever, but the heritage and the health of families across the region are being sacrificed. For a mere 7 percent of the nation’s coal, the tradeoff does not add up.

Rainforest Action Network is partnering with a community-based movement from Appalachia to compel the Environmental Protection Agency and other key agencies to ban the practice.

Impacts to Mountains and Forests

MTR is a mining practice where explosives are used to remove the tops of mountains and expose the small seams of coal that lie beneath. It is estimated the explosive equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb is detonated every week in Appalachia. Once blasted, the earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.

Before mining can begin, tracts of deciduous forests are clearcut (often burned or sometimes illegally dumped into valley fills). These unique hardwood forests are some of the most biologically diverse in North America.

Impacts to Drinking Water and Human Health

MTR mining poses significant threats to water quality in Appalachia, despite the objectives and requirements of the Clean Water Act designed to protect our nation’s precious water supplies. According to a 2005 environmental impact statement, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried or contaminated.

After blasting has occurred, waste from mining operations is systematically dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams. This waste then releases toxic metals, killing life in streams and polluting ground water. Health problems such as cancer, liver and kidney disease, and skin rashes have been found in correlation with people who drink water from wells contaminated by coal mining. This problem was exacerbated in 2002 when the Bush Administration changed rules in the Clean Water Act, allowing waste material to be considered “fill”, effectively legalizing the dumping of toxic mining waste directly into Appalachian waterways.

Once coal is extracted, it is then washed and treated, resulting in waste water called coal sludge, a mix of water, coal dust, clay and toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, selenium and chromium. Billions of gallons are then stored in vast, unlined impoundments or injected for storage in abandoned underground-mines.

Impoundments are often held in place by mining debris or earthen dams, making them unstable. Sludge dams have been known to fail. In October 2000, residents of Martin County, Kentucky suffered 306 million gallons of slurry entering their water supply. The disastrous spill was over 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.

Mitigation and Regulation Efforts

A recent peer-reviewed report in the journal Science concluded that mountaintop mining has serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address.

While robust reclamation efforts are required for mountaintop removal sites, in practice, most sites receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed. Attempts to reclaim the land after MTR coal-mining operations generally result in abandoned, unmanaged and unproductive scrublands. Clear cutting and topsoil loss disrupts the absorption of rainfall, which has resulted in severe flash floods.

Impacts on Jobs and Clean Energy Opportunities

Coal companies use MTR mining methods because it allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while significantly reducing the number of workers required compared to conventional methods. The coal-bearing counties of Appalachia are some of the poorest in the nation, despite the fact that some of the greatest wealth is being extracted from them.

The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation. We must embrace a clean energy future for our economic survival as well as our environmental and public health. Diversification of the Appalachian economy is now more important than ever.

Appalachia has a wealth of clean energy resources that can be developed to provide new jobs and tax revenues, including wind, solar, low-impact hydro, and sustainable biomass. This development can especially support rural areas, those hardest hit by the declining economy. With political and financial leadership we could transition Appalachia from coal country to clean energy country.

The Way Forward

Polls demonstrate that most Americans oppose MTR removal coal mining.

RAN is demanding a moratorium on all new MTR permits, reversal of the Bush Administration rules changes to the stream buffer zone and fill rules, and strict enforcement of the Clean Water Act for existing MTR operations.

Coal ban in the United Kingdom

When would you guess policy-makers within the United Kingdom first considered banning coal for environmental reasons?

Barbare Freese opens her informative book – Coal: A Human History – by describing noblemen visiting London in 1306 and being appalled by the degradation of local air quality by coal burning by blacksmiths and artisans. In response, Edward I banned the use of the fuel, ordering that first offenders be punished with “great fines and ransoms” while second offenders were to have their furnaces smashed.

Obviously, coal was a niche fuel at the time. Now, the world is using more than ever before, mostly for electricity generation. That being said, if is interesting and perhaps a bit heartening to know that the harm done to human beings by coal has been recognized for more than 700 years, as has the possibility of states restricting its usage.

Coal as Metaphor: Expanding our understanding of “non-renewable”

There’s a reason this site is called “burycoal” (and it has nothing to do with how silly the word “bury” looks written down) – it’s easy to grasp that if climate has to do with the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, digging up all the carbon which the earth has buried over billions of years into solid black stuff might not be the best recipe for human survival. It’s immediately comprehensible that while burning down a tree while another is growing does not add to the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere, digging a tree’s worth of coal out from underground and burning it does – or rather, perhaps we could say that the coal carbon-neutrality cycle is as long as the coal’s “renewable” cycle, which is qualitatively longer than that of trees.

However, there are limits to this over-simplifying way of thinking. For one, when you burn a tree you don’t just give off pure carbon dioxide but also soot, “black carbon” – and this has its own set of effects on climate. So your wood stove is not neutral (and you should replace it with an EPA certified unit, which are designed for cleaner combustion). For another, humans engage in all sorts of practices which turn chemicals into other chemicals, and this poorly thought out alchemy (with respect to the ecosystem at least) is a major contributor to global warming even if the processes are run using carbon-neutral energy.

The production of animal food products for human consumption, for instance, according to a UN Food and Agriculture report, contributes “37 percent of all human-induced methane.” Methane is a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as CO2, but it is actually a mistake to simply equivocate it, 1 unit of methane to 23 units of CO2. It is also qualitatively different in that this major contributor of it is not a source of energy. We need energy to produce it, but its production itself, abstracted from the energy inputs, is a major source of methane. Animals are effectively global warming machines – they ingest carbon based food, and they output a global warming agent far more potent than went in. They re-assemble what was already in the climate (i.e. from whence their food? Out of the air!) into something which has a very different effect on the climate (23 times worse!).

In fact, according to the FAO report,

“the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.”

More than transport. Think about this for a minute – all those trains, ships, trucks, automobiles, all that coal fired electricity running city trolleys and subways, all those airliners too.

Now, I’m not saying that shutting down meat production will be easy. But it seems naive to think that it would be more difficult (technically, politically) to shut down all meat production than to switch to carbon neutral transportation solutions. Now, of course I’m not making a exclusionary disjunctive claim here – we obviously need to do both. Heck, even Glenn Beck agrees with me on this one.

The point I want to make here, however, is not that you should go vegan (although I think everyone should seriously limit their meat intake – not one less meat meal per week, more like reduce meat meals per week to one, and reduce your consumption of dairy while you do more research and learn what you’re actually involving yourself in when you consume these things – ignorance is not a serious excuse). Rather, taking the environment seriously with respect to global warming means treating our ability to release greenhouse gases as a non-renewable resource. Think of it as a finite garbage dump, and when it overflows, we go Venus (this is a misleading analogy, since actual landfill space is not a world historical environmental problem). The production of animals is, in this frame, the same as coal – because it involves the consumption of a non-renewable resource. That non-renewable resource is not a “thing”, but rather the sensitivity of the climate, up to the point where we catastrophically steal from future generations.

So, the sense in which I want to say “coal” can be a metaphor for understanding our climate predicament is that there is a finite amount which we can modify and still sustain flourishing life. This modification can come from digging up the black stuff, or it can come from re-assembling the stuff the air into stuff that acts differently in the air – and this is what we do when we raise livestock. The non-renewability of a resource is not only in the fact it can not continue to be extracted, but also in the fact it can not continue to be emitted. The connection of these two thoughts is necessary to think rationally about the way in which humans interact and shift their eco-situation.

Coal is (almost) gone and the lights are still on

Eliminating coal-fired electricity was supposed to either drive Ontario electricity prices through the roof or put the lights out altogether. At least that was what critics of Ontario’s groundbreaking coal phase out liked to claim. The reality is that the province reached an all-time low in 2009 for coal use, the lights have stayed on and electricity prices remain at the low end of the North American scale. Now, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA) is calling on the province to go all the way – to put its four remaining coal plants (including Nanticoke – the largest coal plant in North America) on “standby reserve” between now and the government’s official 2014 deadline for permanently ending coal use.

The OCAA is pointing out that Ontario’s coal-free generation capacity is now 23% higher than the province’s forecast peak day electricity demand for the summer of 2010. And according to Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, the province will continue to have a comfortable coal-free power surplus between now and 2014 even as the economy rebounds thanks to efficiency and conservation efforts and new generation projects coming online, in part in response to Ontario’s groundbreaking Green Energy Act, which pays a premium for renewable power.

Under the OCAA’s plan, the dirty coal plants would only be run in an unlikely emergency situation where there was no other option (and would not be run simply to sell dirty power to New York or others neighbours). For Canadians used to seeing their federal government dodge, weave and deny in order to avoid taking any action on climate, Ontario’s steady effort to eliminate coal use is a real breath of fresh air – and a chance to come out of hiding for at least a few minutes at international climate meetings. You can find out more at