Alarmist Folly and Political Fumbling Could be Costly

Some governments, notably Australian and Canadian, have been stampeded by alarmist and activist rhetoric. They have been convinced, or recognize the usefulness, of an unproven suggestion that carbon dioxide causes a warming climate that will lead to catastrophe. It does not seem to matter that there is only very shaky evidence to lead to this conclusion. Nor does it seem to matter that not any predictions arising from the thesis have come true or that there is any indication that any will ever come true.


The politicians have instigated a blind rush to shut down all coal-fired electrical generation. Policies have been adopted with little concern for communities or the cost of energy. Policies that have already caused major energy and economic disruption in Australia and Ontario, Canada. Further, some jurisdictions have imposed taxes that punish many energy producers, major contributors to our economies. They do not seem to care that these efforts will have practically no effect on global CO2 emissions and probably no effect at all on global temperatures.


There have to be motives behind this seemingly insane progression. These they would like you to believe. We have to save the world. We have to set an example for the rest of the world. CO2 is so evil that any sacrifice is justified. Well if the world needs saving I am sure there are many more serious and imminent threats to respond to. They are also real and not some wild speculation of bad science and inaccurate models. I think the rest of the world is so preoccupied with their own problems that our example is totally irrelevant to them. The third, of evil CO2, is so ridiculous that it must be reinforced by propaganda and by spittle flying from activist, alarmist groups, each with their own agendas.


Other possible motives are simply ideological, a desperate search for more tax sources or meant to impose more control by centrist governments at the cost of personal freedoms. Perhaps some politicians actually believe they are doing good.


There is nothing inherently wrong with adding diversity to our electrical system. As the technology improves, renewable sources that do not burn fuel may become competitive in cost and reliability. Storage methods may become cost effective as the technology advances and turn solar and wind into reliable sources. If the promise is there, the industry deserves the same types of incentives as is given to other start up industries.


What does not make sense is to give renewables an advantage by imposing disadvantages on conventional sources. A result of such policies can only be an increase in costs to the consumer and a decrease in reliability. How can any government expect voter support for any policy that increases hardship without perceived gain? The spin required cannot possibly survive scrutiny for long.


In Alberta, a Canadian province that has relied on coal to supply about 40% of electrical generation, the plan seems to be to replace coal with natural gas, wind, and solar. Natural gas is abundant in the province, currently very inexpensive and although burning it produces CO2, it is less than burning coal. The abundance requires fracking, however, and this is also in the crosshairs of activists who have managed to convince some jurisdictions to ban it. The wind resource is reasonably good but suffers the same unreliability as in other countries. Buildout past a certain point becomes prohibitively costly because of the need for new transmission infrastructure. The solar resource is also reasonably good but produces the most electricity when it is least needed. The cold dark winters are when it would be nice to have reliable sources of energy. In Alberta, we have limited access to hydropower, very little geothermal potential, no access to tidal energy and no nuclear plants have ever been built. Needless to say, every project faces its own opposition from environmental activists and NIMBY (not in my backyard) groups.


Low sulfur bituminous and sub-bituminous coal accounted for 78 percent of the total coal mined in Alberta and most is used for electrical generation in modern highly efficient plants that produce negligible pollution. Note that this is significantly cleaner burning coal than the lignite coal burned to provide electricity in Germany. Coal underlies almost ½ of the province with much lying close to the surface and allowing safer strip mining. Coal is abundant enough that generating plants can be built next to the source and still be close to the biggest end users of electricity. Transportation and transmission cost is low and help to assure low electricity bills. Currently, coal does not enjoy many alternate uses.


Similarly, natural gas is widespread in deposits under most parts of Alberta. Some of it is methane that is present in coal seams. Low prices ensure that most gas is produced coincidentally to oil production or is developed for access to the high-value natural gas liquids that many sources produce. Unlike coal, individual natural gas sources are diverse and need extensive pipeline infrastructure and pumping facilities to gather sufficient amounts for generating plants.

Natural gas has many other uses. It is easily the least expensive and cleanest fuel for heating. Coal used for home and business heating is highly polluting and is costly to transport. Natural gas is an important feedstock in the production of many products including petrochemicals, plastics, and fertilizers.


There are two large dangers to shutting down all coal plants. One is a loss of reliability due to an over-reliance on wind and solar. Besides needing windy and sunny days, wind and solar installations are much more vulnerable to extreme weather than fuel burning plants. The second is the danger of price spikes for natural gas. They have happened before and they will happen again. Probably as soon as more is used than incidental production provides. Suddenly we will be in a position where natural gas and electricity are no longer competing sources of heat energy but instead become interdependent. Consumers may be forced by the cost to adopt alternative heating methods that may be much more polluting and damaging to the environment.


I will repeat, there is nothing wrong with increasing the diversity of our electrical supply. It may even decrease energy costs through competition. However, arbitrarily closing coal plants decreases the diversity of supply, increases supply risks and could increase costs. It already has increased costs in many areas through careless and rushed implementation of alternates. Policies are being implemented that increase energy cost and thus decrease living standards. This may not be much more than an irritation in rich countries but can be deadly in the third world.


There is also nothing really wrong with reducing our dependence on coal. What is wrong is forcing perfectly good assets into obsolescence without any assurance of a benefit. Is there any real evidence that abandoning modern clean power plants with economically doubtful replacements will actually have an impact on warming. It also appears foolish in the face of mounting evidence that casts doubt on any significant warming or on significant negative consequences occurring.


Almost all coal mined in Alberta for power generation is from relatively flat terrain and land with low agricultural value. This allows throwback strip mining, a method by which stripped soil is thrown back into previously mined areas. Reclamation is easier than for most mine spoil areas. Usually, it is limited to a return to forest or grazing lands due to the low fertility of the spoil. In some cases, topsoil may be saved to spread back on reclaimed sites.

This is not true of all mining. Some are very destructive to landscapes and is a source of water, air (dust) and soil pollution. One of the worst examples is mountaintop removal and highwall mining practiced in the Appalachian region of the U.S. Others, such as deep open pit mines used for resources such as metals or diamonds can never really be reclaimed but only abandoned and allowed to return slowly to a somewhat natural state. Mining is a rather ugly, dirty process but often the only way to acquire the resources our society requires. Even wind and solar energy require mining for materials. Often at least as polluting and destructive as coal mining.


Fly ash and bottom ash disposal is another problem of coal-burning plants but some may be used in concrete production.


Natural gas requires wells and at least rudimentary service roads. These are relatively small in area and easily reclaimed when wells are abandoned. It also requires an extensive network of pipeline infrastructure. The surface above pipelines can be reclaimed as soon as construction is completed. Other pumping, dewatering, and processing facilities are required but these are not extensive.


Natural Gas burns very cleanly with water and CO2 being practically the only emissions.