An Informational, yet Steamy Take on Coal


I believe in climate change, even though what the environment is experiencing, largely as a result of overconsumption of fossil fuels, is not something that needs validation through faith. Global warming just is.

The question is, “what do we do about it”. Many people look toward coal as the single most harmful thing affecting our environment today. The dozens of countries that signed onto the Paris Accords (including, until lately, our own) deemed divestment from coal a necessary plan of action. It seems like “getting rid” of coal would be an obvious solution. But it’s not that simple.

You can support the implementation of renewable energy sources while having a nuanced understanding about the use of coal. But how, Berry? How can we defend coal when it pollutes our air and water? 

I’m not asking you to start spouting Trumpian clean coal nonsense. Coal isn’t clean, and it isn’t good for the environment. But, it is a part of our life. 

When people write and talk about environmental issues, many of their opinions are based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the types and uses of coal. For starters, there are two types of coal, which have very different uses. Thermal or steam coal is burned for energy, like at the Martin Drake Power Plant right here in Colorado Springs. This is lower-quality coal with impurities, especially high sulfur levels. 

Illustration by Cate Johnson

In the U.S., around 45 percent of our energy is produced through the burning of coal. But, in countries such as China and India, the percentages are in the 70s. South Africa gets 93 percent of its electric power from thermal coal.

The energy this coal provides is readily, if not cheaply, produced by a myriad of other sources including gas and renewable energy resources. Thermal coal should not exist. However, at the moment, this cheap option is a necessary fact of life in many developing countries.

Meanwhile, metallurgical coal is used to make steel. This coal has low sulfur levels, but must be cleaned of impurities prior to being put into a furnace with iron to form steel. It burns clean, especially when regulations and legal standards are followed.

Though alternative methods for forging structural steel are under development, there is no substitute for metallurgical coal’s role in the process right now. Any time a bridge or a high-rise building is built, here or anywhere else, it must be made out of structural-grade steel. Even if a bridge or a building is torn down and its steel is carefully recycled, it can only be downcycled and used for a purpose with fewer requirements for structural soundness, like a boat hull.

There is no other way to make steel, but we all know steel is necessary for a lot of things that really benefit us. Have you ever driven across a bridge? Been in a high-rise building? Without coal, we’d be stuck walking around or riding horses because … buh-bye planes, trains, and automobiles.

In fact, every renewable energy source has components made from steel, and thus, metallurgical coal. Every wind turbine (assuming .6 tons of coal is used for every ton of steel) uses around 29 tons of coal. 

The lack of information making its way to the vast majority of Americans surrounding our own country’s infrastructure, and the resulting coal illiteracy that pervades, is contributing to a general breakdown in the discussion of what to do about the most compelling question of all: our own survival. 

On one hand, we have everyone attacking coal owners and coal miners, if not personally then by insisting on their superfluity and general evil, even as the same critics don’t really understand what is at stake. On the other hand, coal companies have understood what is at stake for a long time and have propped up bad and good coal in the same fell swoop, pressing for weakened regulations and against adequate re-education and training programs for miners, letting them believe the demand for metallurgical coal will always shore up the demand for their unique skills. (And I don’t think anyone disagrees that coal miners have unique skills).

On the other hand, we have swaths of so-called progressives who freely dole out sanctimony toward anyone involved in coal, while completely unaware of their own reliance on the infrastructure that depends on it. So, sorry, Brand New Congress, our economy cannot be renewable energy-based, and a Green New Deal would require a ton of coal (and by a ton, I mean millions of tons). Until more people make an effort to really understand the nuances of our social and economic issues — not just from their own well-trodden vantage points, but from the perspective of multiple stakeholders, actors and, yes, victims — we will not be able to move forward with practical solutions.  


One thought on “An Informational, yet Steamy Take on Coal

  1. Timely presentation, heading for a major issue, educational and professional approach the needed

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