Our use of coal
Wikipedia says it is the official state mineral of Kentucky, and the official state rock of Utah. It also gets placed in the Christmas stockings of children who have been badly behaved during the year. And it is responsible for a lot of the carbon pollution we have inflicted on the world. Today, I am exploring some issues around coal.
To start with some facts and figures, I turned to the International Energy Agency. The first diagram is from their 2013 Key World Energy Statistics. It shows the global energy production (TPES) broken down by fuel type in 1973 and 2011. The quantity of each fuel is expressed in millions of tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe), the amount of oil that would produce the same amount of energy as the fuel in question; coal is prominent. It was 24.6% of total fuel produced in 1973 and 28.8% of a much larger total in 2011.
The shares of each fuel in the total primary energy supply (TPES). These are the fuels we extract from nature to drive our global economy. Figure © IEA
The majority of coal gets used in production of electricity and other forms of energy, rather than being burned to produce energy directly for end-users. Thus, its share of the world total of final energy consumption, as shown in the next diagram, is quite a bit smaller: 13.7% of a total of 4,674 Mtoe in 1973, and 10.1% of 8,918 Mtoe in 2011.
The shares of each fuel, including electricity and synthesized oils, which we use to power our global economy. Figure © IEA
Nevertheless, as shown in the third diagram, whether it is used in the production of other fuels, in other industrial processes, or to produce energy itself, the burning of this coal yields impressive amounts of CO2 pollution: 35.0% of the 15,628 Mt of CO2 emitted in 1973, and 44.0% of the 31,342 Mt of CO2¬ emitted in 2011. It’s the most polluting, per unit of energy released, of all the fossil fuels, and for that reason, a fuel that we should be consigning to history as quickly as possible.
The shares of CO2 emissions due to the use of each of our primary fossil fuels, whether the fuel was burned in producing refined fuels or electricity, or directly to produce motive power. The totals of CO2 emissions shown are those due to energy use. We also emit CO2 through our patterns of land use, cement manufacture and other activities. CO2 emissions due to fossil fuel use are 74% of all anthropogenic releases of this gas. Figure © IEA
Unfortunately, the planet has stored an enormous quantity of coal, and, unlike oil which tends to be available in far fewer places, coal is widely distributed across all continents. Coal was the first fossil fuel we harvested; in many ways it proved the easiest to mine, to transport and to use. In Our Dying Planet, I talked about the many environmental and health problems associated with extraction and use of coal. While it started our industrial revolution, it was definitely a mixed blessing for humanity, and it continues to be one. Here, I will focus on recent trends and events and on three parts of the world.
As recently as 2006, while advocating greater speed in developing and implementing technology for carbon capture and storage, as an essential tool in the fight to rein in CO2 emissions, the IEA was projecting a continuing and nearly linear increase in the global rate of coal consumption from about 3000 Mtoe in 2005 to about 4500 Mtoe in 2030, a 50% increase in 25 years. The U.S. Energy Information Administration was similarly bullish, with nearly identical numbers (although they measured in Quadrillion BTUs, just to make life difficult). They reported use of 3089 Mtoe coal in 2005, and predicted 5099 Mtoe in 2030. For both agencies, the growth in use expected in China was a major factor underlying the calculations. In 2006, IEA was reporting Chinese coal-fired electricity generating capacity of 302 Gigawatts in 2004, and an expected increase to 661 Gigawatts by 2020.
China: So Much Coal, So Much Use, So Much Smog. Whoops.
So let’s start with China. This country has vast reserves of coal. In 2012, China was responsible for producing 45.3% of the 7.8 billion tonnes of coal mined worldwide, and imported a further 278 million tonnes from other countries. China is a rapidly modernizing country without a lot of oil or gas. It has had to make full use of its available coal, and had been building coal-fired power plants at a rate of almost one a week as recently as 2010. There have been consequences.
The Pannan power plant, one of China’s many coal-fired generation stations.
Photo © Simon Lim/Greenpeace
China has the unenviable reputation of having the most dangerous coal-mining industry worldwide. On August 20th, USA Today reported that authorities were working to try and save trapped miners in two separate accidents that had already recorded fatalities. There were over 1000 fatalities in mining accidents in China in 2013 (a less lethal than average year). The pollution of land and water that always lurks around coal mining operations is undoubtedly also serious, but not necessarily closely monitored. But it is the air pollution in the big Chinese cities that has captured world and Chinese attention in recent months. This pollution is a result of multiple causes, but undeniable is the role of fine particulates due to the mining, transport, and use of coal. And China has begun to respond. In September 2013, National Geographic reported that China was taking a number of steps to rein in its coal industry, including cancelling a number of planned coal-fired power plants in the vicinity of its major cities. Early this month, Beijing announced plans to phase out all use of coal for heating by 2020, and now there are indications that use of coal in China might actually be falling. Greenpeace reported on August 19th that the growth of imports had almost ceased during the first half of this year and that domestic production had dropped 1.8%. Part of this plateauing could be due to the sluggish (for China) economy, but an apparent increase in coal stockpiles appears to indicate that the reduction in use has been more than an economic slowing would cause. In April 2014, Jeff Rubin, writing in the Globe & Mail, picked up on the Chinese slowdown in coal use, predicting that it would have an impact on world trade in coal. If the Beijing smog has got the attention of the Chinese leadership, and there is real movement on the coal front, that can only be good news for the global climate and the prospects for progress at next year’s climate talks.
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on a less than ideal day in January, 2013. Photo © Agence France Presse
Ontario: A Good-news Energy Story from Canada
The slow move away from use of coal has been going on for a long time in North America, and that has speeded up with the enhanced availability of natural gas due to fracking. As a result, the US EIA projected increased exports by both Canada and the US from 2011 through 2040 as greater proportions of the product being mined were shipped overseas. In Canada, the transition in use has been led by provincial governments, most notably Ontario, which announced in April that the Thunder Bay Generating Station, Ontario’s last coal-fired power plant, had burned its last coal and was being closed. Over a span of 10 years, Ontario went from depending on coal for 25% of its electricity needs to relying totally on nuclear, hydro, and renewables – chiefly wind and solar. Nuclear and hydro are the backbone, together providing 78% of Ontario’s power requirements (about 155 Terawatt hours in 2013). The nuclear infrastructure includes the 6,300 megawatt Bruce Power facility on the shore of Lake Huron – the world’s largest operating nuclear site — and a further 6,600 megawatts in two other plants, while the hydro generation capacity is primarily at Niagara Falls and at the Lower Mattagami River in the north.
Bruce Nuclear Power Plant, Ontario. Photo © Toronto Star
The 10 megawatt Newboro1 solar farm under construction in eastern Ontario.
Photo © David Chan/Globe&Mail
Ontario undertook this transition because its government articulated a clear policy favoring a cleaner mix of fuels. (Needless to say, the Harper government has provided no spurs or carrots to encourage such progressive action by Canadian provinces!). The path taken included an emphasis on conservation. This was encouraged by a differential cost of electricity depending on hour by hour demand, and by use of smart metering for residential consumers, as well as by comparable inducements to industry. As a result, the Ontario government claims to have ‘saved’ about 8.6 terawatt hours demand through increases in efficiency of use. Use of a feed-in tariff (FIT) program specifying fixed prices for electricity sold into the grid from solar or wind generation systems spurred development of a robust renewables sector that is now responsible for over 5% of total demand. The remainder is supplied by gas-fired generation stations. These renewables-favoring policies have resulted in a significant investment in wind farms, and in solar – both on-roof residential systems and large solar farms – development not seen to a similar extent in other parts of Canada. Along the way, the Ontario government made one stupid decision, giving in to nimby-ism just before a critical election that resulted in significant added costs to relocate to planned gas-fired plants, and electricity prices for consumers have spiked upwards (largely due to prior mismanagement, but consumers notice only the added cost). Nevertheless, Ontario’s story is one of the few good-news stories on the climate front in Canada – one that has made a significant dent in Canada’s overall CO2 emissions. But not in Canada’s mining of coal, which is primarily for export.
USA: New EPA Regulations Start to Turn Off the Coal Button
Exporting of coal to China, India and other nations is now a major activity in Canada, in the US, and in Australia. Exporting coal requires coal export terminals, with all the attendant mess in terms of coal dust, fine particulates and low-scale chronic pollution. Some potential sites for terminals are saying ‘no’. Last week the Oregon Department of State Lands rejected an application by Ambre Energy to transport coal by rail from Montana and Wyoming to Boardman, then barge it down the Columbia River to Port Westland for transfer to bulk carriers for transport to markets in Asia. The project would move 8.8 million tonnes of coal per year, and was the smallest of three new projects proposed for the Pacific North-West as a way of finding access to new Asian markets for US-produced coal. This week Port Metro Vancouver approved the expansion of the Fraser Surrey dock to accommodate shipping 4 million tonnes of US coal brought in by rail and then shopped to Asia.
The pressure to develop new coal terminals arises from pressures within North America to reduce use of coal. In the US that pressure has been partly the ample supply of inexpensive natural gas that has resulted from use of fracking – gas is a less polluting fuel, and retrofits to generation stations are relatively straightforward. Partly it has been the growing realization that coal’s time has passed in the US economy. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency, which had previously announced tough new regulations governing new coal-fired plants, introduced new requirements for CO2 emissions from existing coal-fired plants. Given that some 39% of electricity generation is based on use of coal, regulations to cut CO2 emissions from these plants can have a major impact on the US contribution to global CO2 emissions. But equally, the importance of coal-fired plants means that the new regulation is going to be fought. Early this month, the LA Times reported that 12 states were suing the EPA over the proposed regulations, however, John Deutsch, writing in the Wall Street Journal on 18th August, termed the new regulations “an unexpectedly thoughtful and well-supported plan setting specific goals for reducing emissions chosen from a menu of measures such as increased efficiency, emissions trading and fuel switching, mainly from coal to natural gas for electricity generation”. If successful, this will be a significant move to curtail CO2 emissions form use of coal. And it will curtail domestic coal use.
Australia: Economy vs Environment – Coal vs Coral, but Maybe the Coral will Win
Australia is one of the other major coal producers, 5th largest on the planet according to the IEA, producing some 421 million tonnes of coal per year, of which 302 million tonnes are exported to Asia. In Australia the rush to increase export capacity in order to keep up with the presumed growing demand from China has led to an unfortunate conflict between support of one of the country’s major industries and conservation of its most important, and iconic, natural heritage treasure, the Great Barrier Reef. In Australia, the major coal production regions are in Queensland and the major export terminals lie along the Queensland coast, immediately inshore from the Great Barrier Reef.
I vividly remember the sleepy town of Gladstone, Queensland in the early 1970s – a small country town on the Queensland coast that had even then been transformed by the construction of a giant alumina plant that processed raw bauxite into alumina for export, using the readily available Queensland coal in the process. Close to the alumina plant, along the large estuary that was Gladstone harbor, was a coal terminal that shipped coal out to Asia and points beyond. It was a quaint Queensland town that had already been morphed into something unreal by all this heavy industry, and it showed it. On the main street there were gift shops catering to tourists headed to the reef, with postcards of the alumina plant at night – as if this was a scenic wonder tourists might want to see. Maybe some of them did! In the early 1970s, it was a quaint little town with a small cancer growing on its southeast flank.
I saw Gladstone last in 2012, after many years away, and because I took the helicopter out to the Heron Island Research Station, I got to see it from the air. The cancer had grown. There are now two alumina plants, and the coal terminal had clearly metastasized. There is something incredibly sad about a region of mangroves, deltaic channels, and mud flats that has been taken over by industry.
Somewhere in this scene there is a quaint Queensland country town named Gladstone, but it’s sure hard to find. Photo © Rachel Fountain/ABC
Gladstone is just one of several coal terminals on the Queensland coast, and recently there have been plans advanced to upgrade, and expand several of them and to build completely new ones. It’s all part of the rush to build shipping capacity to get the coal to China before anyone else does – a remarkably similar plan to the one that drives the urgent need to build pipelines from Alberta to every corner of Canada in order to export the tar sands glurp as quickly as possible. In both cases the industries are acting as if they know that they are dealing in a time-sensitive product, one that is going to spoil very soon. In both cases they are dealing in products that will spoil, not like rotten bananas, but in value once the world suddenly stops using them.
The Australian port expansion plans are extensive, and I discussed them last month. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of University of Queensland sent me a couple of articles discussing this issue. I also found two recent documents concerning management of the Great Barrier Reef. The first, Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, was produced by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) as mandated both by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act, and by UNESCO regulations governing management of a World Heritage Area. It replaces the 2009 Outlook Report, and assesses the state of the Great Barrier Reef, factors influencing, and trends in that state, and projects a long-term assessment of reef condition. The second, Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment: Strategic assessment report, was produced by GBRMPA as one part of a National and Queensland strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef region, including the Great Barrier Reef and its catchment area along the coastal plain of Queensland. A comparable assessment is being done by the State of Queensland on the terrestrial portion of the region. Both documents deal with the impacts of port development on the Great Barrier Reef.
Ports within the Great Barrier Reef region and the total throughput (imports + exports) per year in millions of tonnes. Most of the tonnage is coal exports. There are major expansion plans, or work in progress, at Abbot Point, Hay Point, Gladstone, and Townsville, however proposals for three new coal terminals in the northern part of the region have now been shelved. Figure © Ports Australia.
Production of coal in Queensland has doubled since 1990 to about 200 million tonnes per year, and exports are expected to reach between 300 and 450 tonnes per year by 2025. That requires significant port expansion, and expansion requires significant dredging and disposal of spoil. Plans for Gladstone include the dredging of 12 million m3 of sediments that would be disposed offshore, but within the Great Barrier Reef region. Similar quantities of dredging are involved at other ports, and there is also regular maintenance dredging to keep shipping lanes deep enough for the ever larger vessels.
However, opposition to the dredging is growing, and three banks, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, and RBS, have recently announced that they were cancelling planned investments in coal port expansion in Australia. Perhaps more importantly, the lowering of demand in China is causing some adjustments to plans for mine development and port expansion in Australia. The Dudgeon Point development at Hay Point, which would have required dredging of about 15 million m3 was cancelled on June 20th because of “weakened demand”. It has always been recognized that humanity would come to its senses regarding climate change before we burned up all known reserves of fossil fuels. At some stage, perfectly good resources would get left in the ground. It now seems possible that we are starting to see this shift, and after coal, the tar sands will be next. On July 28th, Jeff Rubin drew attention to the parallels between Stephen Harper’s love of the tar sands and Tony Abbot’s love of Australia’s coal industry, and suggested that the Chinese slowdown could be the game-changer that slows or cancels the expansion in coal production that Prime Minister Abbot so clearly wants to occur.