Thursday, July 29, 2010

The coal problem and global warming

Quite apart of the question of global warming, the electrical generation industry has a significant coal problem that has to be addressed even by Anthropogenic Global Warming skeptics. First, coal powered electrical generation plants are aging,. Most coal powered generation plants were built before 1970, and as thy age they ware out. Although maintenance can keep an old plant going, they will not last forever. In addition old power plants require expensive retrofits mandated by environmental concerns. that exist quite apart from Anthropogenic Global Warming, Old coal fired power plants have been dumping garbage on the communities which the allegedly serve for 60 or even 80 years. Fly ash, acid forming gasses, and other environmental pollutants coming from power plans for generations have real human and environmental costs. Coal fired pollutants dirty laundry hanging on the line, damage children's health, as well as the health of adults, damage vegetation down wind, thus impacting farmers livelihood, and damage and even destroy valuable forests.

Even from a libertarian perspective, the creation of environmental damage by an economic activity cannot be justified if it damages the health, well being and safety of others. In addition environmental intrusions that damage the value or usefulness of property, can be viewed as a violation of property rights from a Libertarian perspective. Libertarian Mary J. Ruwart argues,
if your neighbors dumped garbage on your lawn, you would expect them to clean it up. If they didn't do so when asked, you'd call the local law enforcement. When your neighbor finally did restore your lawn, you'd expect them to compensate you for whatever additional costs were incurred in the enforcement of your claim. Obviously, the expense and hassle of cleaning up your lawn far outweighs the benefits that your neighbors might get from dumping garbage on your lawn in the first place. Thus, if they knew that you were likely to seek restitution, your neighbors would not pollute your property.
Environmental restoration is costly and difficult. Restitution therefore becomes an incredibly onerous punishment and the most effective deterrent known. . . .

In Britain, individuals have property rights in the rivers that run through their land. If someone upstream pollutes the water and harms the fish, the downstream owners don't have to wait for a bureaucratic commission to study the issue. Instead, they immediately sue the polluters to protect their valuable property and claim restitution for damages. As a result, would-be polluters are effectively deterred from damaging the environment.

Waterways that don't have a private protector fare much worse. A citizen's action group recently contacted me because they were concerned about businesses dumping toxic chemicals into the neighboring Ohio River. Because the government claims stewardship of this waterway, individuals have no ownership rights on which to base a suit. They must wait until bureaucrats decide to take action. If the businesses contribute to the campaign chests of powerful politicians, nothing may ever happen, even if local authorities are truly protective of the environment.

I am laying out this case not because I advocate the libertarian point of view, but to suggest that even though many libertarians deny the existence or importance of Anthropogenic Global Warming, does not mean that they would oppose court actions designed to seek restitution for lost property rights as well as class action law suites designed to seek restitution for victims whose health has bee adversely impacted by coal related environmental pollution.

In addition to the environmental problems caused by air born pollution created by coal fired electrical generation, coal fired power plants create a huge toxic waste problem. Ash from coal fired power plants contains many toxic materials including, Arsenic, Beryllium, Cadmium, Chromium, Lead, Mercury, Nickel, Vanadium, Thorium and Uranium. The ash spill from one ash holding pond at TVA's Kingsport Steam Plant, contained 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash, a far larger amount of potentially toxic material than has been accumulated in all of the reactors waste in the United States during their entire history of operation. Yet this huge amount of material is only a fraction of the ash waste from the Kingston Steam Plant, one of many waste producing coal fired power plants in the United States. The existence of this enormous toxic waste problems is largely ignored by environmentalists, who appear to be much more concerned about the far smaller, and far more easily solved, nuclear waste problem.

The coal ash problem is an actual nuisance, but potentially it is a much bigger problem as the 2008 ash spill at Kingsport demonstrated. Thus the coal waste problem represents an enormous and growing liability to the electrical generation industry. Coal ash piles represent both air and water pollution problems. As I have pointed out, coal ash contains many toxic substances. If the coal ash is kept in wet storage, as it was in Kingsport, there is always a danger of spills, as well as the leaching of toxic chemicals into the soil and into local surface and ground water. An accumulation of toxic materials in ground water is a problem which can develop over thousands of years. Toxic materials in rivers and lakes, can prevent water use for human consumption, or for agricultural purposes. Thus from a Libertarian perspective, coal ash represents a dangerous intrusion into property and human rights, that might be effected by environmental spread of pollutants over time. What makes the Libertarian solution problematic is the potential for a time spread between the creation of the problem, and the noting of its effects. If it takes several hundred years before the pollution of ground water by pollutants from a coal ash pile to be noted. Suing the owning and offending utility probably will not be the effective deterrent if the effect will not create a problem in the short run.

Furthermore, it ought not be the case that law suites based on adverse health impact should be the only deterrent to air pollution by coal plant owners. If a polluter causes physical harm to other people, this should be considered a criminal matter, and at least potentially treated as such. Yet the history of the coal industry itself provides many examples in which owners behaved an far more overtly injurious and criminal fashions and were allowed to get away with it by corrupt local authorities. A brief account of the West Virginia Coal Mine Wares recounts
The miner had free speech, but what happened after he spoke could give him serious trouble. Many companies employed the firm Baldwin and Felts to provide mine guards. These guards dispensed retribution against “rabblerousers” and “outside agitators” who came in talking about unions. One town even featured a Gatling gun mounted upon the front porch of a company official’s home. Companies figured that they could increase their control by importing miners from a variety of areas such as Russia, southern Italy, and Austria-Hungary. They came from countries with oppressive systems; also living in a strange country with different customs and languages increased their isolation. In fairness, company towns ran the spectrum from benevolently paternalistic societies to absolutely dictatorial rule. Increasingly the system turned its aims towards preventing unions from organizing the region.

The United Mine Workers of America felt compelled to unionize Appalachia after the turn of the century. The Central Competitive Field companies agreed to unionize if the unions could force Appalachian mines to pay their employees the same wages as those in the CCF. The union would lose its credibility if it failed to compel the organization of the Appalachian fields. Before World War I, the northern and central part of the state succumbed to the tide of unionization. These areas lay relatively close to population centers such as Charleston and Morgantown which also contained press outlets and the state government. Also, the B&O railroad in the north and the Kanawha River flowing through the coalfield east of the state capital rendered arguments about transportation and access meaningless. Severe violence occurred at Paint Creek, twenty miles east of Charleston, in 1913 as companies tried to force the union out of an area. They failed and the union remained in place. This left a rump of non union counties in the southwestern coalfields: the most isolated part of the state, known for sporadic violence and lawlessness ever since the Civil War. . . .

Coal companies called upon powerful allies to help maintain control. In addition to the Baldwin-Felts agents, coal companies also enjoyed the benevolent cooperation of county sheriffs and their departments. Logan County Sheriff Don Chaffin could call upon a force of nearly 500, mostly paid for from coal company treasuries. Vigilantes from the middle classes took up arms and joined small detachments of state police and National Guardsmen.
Such situations are often tolerated or ignored by libertarians who seemingly have very little sympathy for the problems of the working person, and great tolerance for deviant behavior by property owners.

At any rate, there is a route that would indirectly bring Libertarians on board to AGW mitigation efforts, provided they were called something else. If an effective coal replacement strategy that would lead to the elimination of carbon emissions in energy generation could be developed, this would represent substantial progress toward carbon reduction goals.

Mitigation success, not names and ideologically based slogans should be the the goal of climate control efforts. Legislative efforts to craft mitigation policy that is not acceptable to political conservatives have failed dismally. Legislation that is acceptable to conservatives need not be ineffective in meeting mitigation goals. In addition a partisan bill is subject to repeal with election swings, while bipartisan legislation is more likely to survive.


Anonymous said...

Um, let me think. Here are a few good reasons to adopt nuclear power; each plant costs $10 billion to build, it costs over $300 million just to turn a nuclear plant off, nuclear plants are terrorist targets, the fuel is destructive to make, the fuel is dangerous to handle and transport, the fuel is a terrorist target, the spent fuel must be buried in old abandoned mines, the spent fuel is a terrorist target. There has never been a nuclear plant anywhere in the world which has made money without huge permanent subsidies, primarily because the industry is so heavily regulated they are unprofitable. Of course we have Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the two main reasons why they are heavily regulated. The final reason; because nuclear promoters keep saying ‘nuclear is a lot safer today’, that’s the ultimate reason why we should adopt nuclear.

Coal on the other hand is none of these things. It is old technology, plants are cheap to build, cheap to maintain, they are not welfare cases and they are not terrorist targets. The only problem is they emit smoke. Why can’t we solve this simple, old technology issue? I guess coal is not sexy and nuclear is. My suggestion is that instead of spending $10 Billion on a nuclear plant, we spend $1 Billion on R&D to make coal a smoke free energy source, and spend the remaining $9 billion to buy malaria mosquito nets for just about every vulnerable person on earth. And the whole coal/nuclear issue would go away. Perhaps even malaria too.

But no, lets adopt nuclear anyway. It's cool.

Charles Barton said...

Too much a coward to reveal your own name? The Energy Information agency estimates that the 2016 cost if nuclear power will be over 20% lower than the cost onshore wind, nearly half the cost of off shore wind. Half the cost of Solar thermal, and nearly a third of the cost of PV.

You seem to think that the words Three Mile Island and Chernoby constitute an argument. I have discussed both accidents and the lessons learned from them, but of course you are not interested in learning anything.

I have pointed out some of the problems with coal fired power plants. According to the EIA coal with carbon capture and sequestration is not less expensive than nuclear. With coal you get coal mining accidents, you get radioactive waste, without control of the radiation. You also get increased spending on health care. clearly then you have not weighed the issues.

Edward Peschko said...


mr anonymous, you did an awesome job in blathering out every single untrue cliche available about nuclear power in as short a possible space. I must commend you most heartily for your duckspeak, and for a good laugh..

so, to take your points one at a time:

1. only in the overprotective west are nuclear power plants $10 billion for a gw reactor. In china they are coming in at $1.5-2B.

2. the 'destruction' of the fuel (undefined) is inherently a problem 3 million times smaller than any fossil-fuel based problem.

3. Terrorist target? Even if a large scale plane hit a containment dome, it would hardly make a dent. And chernobyl is a red herring - no modern design can possibly end up like that due to current designs having what is called a negative void coefficent and passive security measures (if you are curious, look em up.)

4. coal is old, but it certainly isn't cheap, for the issues raised in this article. Another concept for you: an *externality*, which is what you don't seem to comprehend.

5. technology is no panacea. economics and technology are reigned by *physics* and not wishing to gaia and spreading fairy dust on what you want done. The problem with fossil technology is that it is inherently based on the electromagnetic force, not the nuclear force, and hence is inherently millions of times less efficient per unit mass, and which directly effects our health, and the health of our environment.

I'd look very carefully if I were you at the above points, and in the meantime take some physics classes. It may just help your worldview out, which seems to come straight from a stoned out 60s hippie commune.


Anonymous said...


CAGW "skeptics" are not in favor of coal. They Just don't believe one can support a modern industrial economy on wind/solar, the power source of choice for many CAGW believers. Thus they don't think the evidence for CAGW is strong enough to risk sacrificing the economy (e.g. jobs).

If CAGW believers would propose "cheaper than coal" LFTR et al "skeptics" would not object.

LFTR is the grand compromise. No co2, far "greener" than PWR, and cheaper than coal.


LarryD said...

One ignored issue. How do the coal miners make a living if the coal industry is shut down?

Until a plausible answer for that is in hand, there is going to be a lot of political resistance to shutting down coal, and to nuclear precisely because it displaces coal. And the coal industry executives are only the surface, the miners (and therefore their unions), their families, their communities, the states where coal is a major industry, the resistance is deep for a reason.

Deal with this, and the politics change.

Coal said...

Coal Terminals and additional infrastructure are required in the coal supply chain. Coal newsletters and coal prices show developing economies are more likely to increase their investment into & their use of thermal coal & metallurgical coal in coming years because of its affordability and to meet increasing demands for electricity and steel.


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