The green movement would have us think that burning wood, wood pellets, in place of coal is more sustainable. This is skewed logic as I’ll point out below. I’m not saying coal is cleaner than wood. Far from it. But the greenies have gone to an extreme. Remember, balance. Here’s what is happening:
The British are buying enormous quantities of wood pellets to replace coal usage, first in the massive Drax power station followed by the Lynemouth power plant. Interestingly, the burning of wood pellets still emits carbon dioxide but the justification for the switch is that the forest is renewable. (Remember, EU states must consume 20% renewables for energy by 2020. That’s the law.) But let me continue with the logic. The pellet manufacturing process is very energy intensive, which means greater carbon dioxide. Also, there is a higher level of carbon dioxide because of transportation from the forest to the port to another port and then to the power plant. Here’s the knicker-twister (love that): where are we going to get all the trees to make pellets? Right now there are two power stations with more being added. The supply is simply not scalable. Bottom line: logic and economics are out the window when the survival of the earth is at stake. Do I sound cynical! Hah!
If we think back to the 19th century, the world population was about two billion and wood was the primary source of heat, building materials, ships and so on. To a certain degree, this led to deforestation in Europe and here in the US, in certain regions. Then came coal and steel and the steam engine. Voila! The Industrial Revolution was born and this, really, has led us to our seven billion population of today. Right now the trend in energy is to reduce fossil, coal, and increase renewables, wood pellets. But we seem to be going from one extreme to the other. The bottom line with this shift is that if the US were to stop using fossil fuels and use wood, our forests would be cleared within three months, causing incredible environmental destruction. That’s extreme, but these are extreme times, AKA, Donald Trump). The point here is we can’t run our industrial society on wood. Balance, my friends!
The Drax power station in Yorkshire was probably the largest coal fired power station in Europe. Two of the huge boilers have already been converted to run wood pellets from America, with a third to go on line in 2017. In 2014 the Drax operation consumed 4.1 million tonnes of pellets. By 2017 it will be 6.9 million tonnes. We’re okay with two units but the problem lies in scale. Twenty Drax units would put enormous pressure on our wood breadbasket and, in fact, burning wood may not actually reduce emissions at all. So, why is this happening?
First of all, the EU requirement for renewable energy. Second, Drax has been told by EU authorities they must stop using coal. What is interesting is that the Lynemouth power station will be paid a fixed price of £105 for every megawatt-hour of biomass fired power it generates through 2027. That is well over double the current market price for power. Further, the UK consumers and industry are also picking up the tab for transporting wood pellets from the US. This to fulfill a renewable requirement. The major issue for us, here in America, is deforestation. This may be more serious than burning coal. Forests are our main sink for the collection of CO2. If we don’t have them, this increases the flow of carbon dioxide into the environment. As a passenger, all I can say is the energy world is upside down. We sit and watch while we go from one extreme to the other.
While the greenies focus on wood pellets, regardless of consequences, the fall of king coal is ongoing and will continue. This is an incredible story and exacerbated by the tragedy in West Virginia at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Talk about extremes. This story exemplifies how one person can tip a scale. Not only do the greenies have a case for toxic emissions from coal fired power plants, now they have a case for unparalleled arrogance, disregard for human life, and total irresponsibility in terms of mine safety.
Have you ever heard of Don Blankenship? Blankenship was born and raised in the hills of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. He eventually became the CEO of Massey Energy and during an almost 20-year career became known as the “king of coal.” He was (note the past tense) a bigger than life figure amassing huge fortune for Massey Energy and himself. He built an enormous villa on a West Virginia mountaintop, traveled all over the state in his helicopter, and spent millions, literally millions, making sure that his favored politicians, including judges, were in control. All of this until Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine had a horrific explosion in April 2010, killing 29 workers. This was the worst U.S. mine disaster in over forty years. Eventually Blankenship was accused of ignoring health and safety mining regulations and rules and lying to inspectors. He was also accused of misrepresenting the Massey Energy financial situation to investors. Finally, this past December, he was convicted and will be sentenced in the late spring of 2016. While disappointing it was the first time a prominent American coal executive was convicted of a charge connected to the deaths of miners. I suppose that should be poetic justice. In China, an executive responsible for worker fatality is executed. Here we go through a legal process and while Blankenship was found guilty of one misdemeanor for conspiring to violate safety rules, he was acquitted of felony charges of lying about it. Cruel justice!
The trial revealed an incredible picture of brazen deception:
•Internal memos demonstrated a total disregard for mine safety (why in the world would this have been put in writing?!)
•A corporate culture that exposed employees to extraordinary risk
•A written memo that stated “run, run, run until we get caught” with contempt for legality and safety
•A disregard for “black lung disease,” which is fatal, caused by inhaling mine dust (during the jury trial, jurors were told of miners being instructed to wear dust pumps inside their coveralls in an effort to skew the results. Later it was found that 17 of the 29 miners that were killed had suffered from black lung disease).
And the story of deception, greed and arrogance goes on and on. The trial should have been moved to China. The sentence there would have been more fitting. This interesting chapter only tells part of the coal story. While Massey and other coal mining companies have protected themselves with bankruptcy, the demand for coal continues to decline. Not so much for the likes of Blankenship and his cronies, but more because of cleaner fossil energy, natural gas. But is it cleaner? What about the extraction process? What about process chemicals? What’s the carbon footprint of fracked natural gas? Wood pellets, Blankenship, or people like him, coal, fracking, all add up to pushing the scale one way or the other. Balance is out the window. Harmony is gone. Energy is upside down and as passengers we sit and do nothing.
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.